Archive for the ‘orchestra’ Tag

Too many bright sparky children

Sometimes it is so hard to choose. This week I needed to make a Final List of offers for the 2014 MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, a composing and improvising ensemble for 28 children and professional musicians from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, working under my direction. We held our annual weekend of try-outs at the start of February.

MSO ArtPlay Open Workshops

Around 120 children took part in 6 free 1-hour composing workshops. The workshop process is the same each year – it gives children a taste of the strategies we use for collaborative composing in the Ensemble, and shows us who is out there to invite into the Ensemble for 2014. (Read more about the workshop process here).

Workshop group (G. Howell)At the end of each workshop, the two MSO musicians and I discuss each participant, noting how they responded and the sorts of strengths and preferences they showed. We look for “bright, sparky kids” – children who like the idea of making things up on their instrument, who are open, who feel comfortable working in a group made up of adults and other children, and who are happy to try out other people’s ideas as well their own. They need to be comfortable on their instrument, but high-level skills are not a primary criterion.

We score each child with a Yes, No, Maybe/Yes, or Maybe/No. Usually the Ensemble is made up of children on the ‘Yes’ and ‘Maybe’ lists. Other ‘Maybes’ go on the Reserve list in case someone doesn’t take up their place.

By the end of the weekend I had 41 ‘Yeses’. There are only 28 places in the group… I had to take a deep breath, and steel myself to do a Big Cull. It hurt! While it is great that we are attracting so many children who are such a good match for the program, it’s tough to know that there were children – fabulously imaginative, perceptive, inventive kids, with a deep connection to and love for their instrument – who would be awesome contributors to this Ensemble, that I couldn’t offer a place to this year.

Choosing is always difficult, especially in an education context, where the goal is one of supporting each child’s development, rather than just finding the best players. There are always children that we see who, for whatever reason – maybe shyness, or self-consciousness with the shift away from notation and right/wrong notes into this inventive and open-ended process – don’t shine as brightly on the day as others but who we believe have great potential and would benefit from participating in the Ensemble. Finding the right balance of personalities, potential, and instrumentation is important.

I think the process we use is a good one, and a fair one. There is space for children to come in and just be themselves – every ensemble benefits from a mix of extrovert leaders as well as quieter, rock-steady leaders, and section players. We get a lot of quirky children coming to us – their out-of-the-box thinking is such an asset in creative projects like this, and they often thrive in a social environment with lots of other non-conformist thinkers.

Nevertheless, there is no ‘perfect’ choice. The choices I make will create the Ensemble that we get – a different set of choices will create a different Ensemble. By choosing, I am also laying the ground for a set of experiences and relationships for those children, and for me. The first MSO ArtPlay Ensemble was formed in 2006, and that year, there was no selection process. We just accepted everyone who applied. That group is now finishing school, some are even at university. Quite a few have kept in touch over the years, letting me know what they are up to with their music. They are making choices now that will see them becoming the next generation of orchestral musicians, jazz musicians, music therapists – I’m sure. I’m not suggesting those choices are due to their experience of the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble! But I believe that if you experience yourself as musical and creative in your formative playing years, this creates a strong foundation for seeking and trying out new musical ventures as you mature.

Being the one to choose is both a privilege and a responsibility, because choices open as well as close… and set new things in motion. Ah well… I’m looking forward to this year’s journey, despite the challenge of choosing!

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Barriers to arts participation

ArtPlay music workshop (Gillian Howell)This weekend I am leading a series of free workshops at ArtPlay on behalf of ArtPlay and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra [MSO] for children aged 8-13. The workshops are held at the start of every school year and we always get a pretty strong showing of participants – with 5 workshops across the weekend fully booked, or close to full. Children come with their instruments and take part in a fast-paced 1-hour composing workshop. At the end of the hour we perform the newly composed pieces of music to an audience of their parents and siblings.

The workshops are a fun experience in themselves but they also function as a ‘taster’ session of what is on offer in the year-long MSO ArtPlay Ensemble program, and we use them as a kind of audition, enabling us to identify which children most strongly responded to the open-ended, creative and collaborative way that we work. 25 of these children are then offered a place in the year-long program.

Fully-booked workshops means no obvious barriers to participation, presumably? Not necessarily. Every year, we approach this program strongly aware that simply by virtue of it being a music program, it is going to attract the attention of a certain demographic – those whose children are learning to play an instrument, and to a lesser extent, those who regularly participate in creative arts workshops in centers like ArtPlay and who prioritise those experiences, but who may not been involved in learning to play an instrument. In Australia, learning to play an instrument is an expensive undertaking, rarely offered at primary schools without passing the cost of the lessons and instruments on to the parents.

Every year therefore, I consider the projects I have led in disadvantaged schools and try and identify particular children that I know would thrive in a program like this – children who demonstrate musical talent and vibrant creative imaginations. There are a small number of scholarships (ie. fully-subsidised places in the year-long program) available for children who might not be able to accept an offered place due to financial constraints.

But there are many reasons children may not take part in programs like this and they are not all financial. Children of this age-group generally need a parent or adult to accompany them to the workshop venue and to pick them up, but in some households this is a huge barrier because parents are working, or caring for younger children, or don’t have transport options, or can’t afford public transport… or they may not assume that kind of involvement in their children’s lives and rarely take them anywhere. Similarly, they might make a plan for their child’s travel to and from the venue, but when the workshop day comes, decide they need that child to stay at home that day – there are other things that take priority over the workshop in their family.

There may also be psychological barriers about going to a new, unfamiliar place (for the child and the parent). The venues for the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble are all in the city centre – but many families (especially those who are new to Australia, or from refugee backgrounds as are many of the children I work with) may find the idea of going into the city centre quite intimidating and even frightening, as it is unfamiliar, busy, and perhaps unpredictable. Similarly, buildings can be psychologically intimidating places to enter, even if they are ‘public’ spaces. People may instinctively sense that they are “not welcome”, or that this place is “not for their type”, and therefore reluctant to cross the threshold.

As an artist or arts worker in participatory projects like workshops, these barriers can be very tricky to overcome. With the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, we have tried a number of ways to encourage a more diverse group of participants into the program. One year, I identified a talented young Vietnamese girl, recently arrived in Australia, as someone who would benefit from and contribute lots to the Ensemble. She lived quite far from the city so we arranged for her to travel in a taxi to and from the workshop venue each day, in addition to offering the fully-subsidised place. Sometimes an older cousin travelled with her, and by about the 3rd workshop in the year, they had decided that May would travel home on the train by herself. Her cousin had shown her how to get to the station. She also asked me if I could accompany May to the station at the end of the workshop, but I had a meeting with the orchestral management team immediately after the workshop, so they decided that May could go by herself rather than wait.

About 40 minutes into my meeting that afternoon, the receptionist came to find me, to ask me to go to the front desk. May was there, sobbing and sobbing, in quite a state. She had tried to go to the station but had got lost. She’d come back to the workshop venue to find me (the only person she knew) but I couldn’t be located by the security staff because I was in this meeting. May felt overwhelmed by the entire situation (and perhaps by the effort of trying to make herself understood in English) and began to cry. Of course at that point I stayed with her, and travelled home with her, but after that day, she didn’t return to the program. I spoke to her cousin on the phone who told me she didn’t want to come back.

This year, I approached the mother of two very bright children I had been working with at Pelican Primary School. They were siblings, both sang in the choir, and had very natural, instinctive skills on the marimba and other percussion instruments in the school. I described the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble program to their mother, who I have chatted to before and know to be very friendly, warm, approachable and keen to support her children in different learning opportunities. The family comes from a refugee background, but has been in Australia for some time and seem pretty well-settled, organised and functional :-). She was very excited to hear about the program and scholarship opportunity and said several times, “Yes, I would support them to do this.”

That was at the end of last year, December 2012. I no longer teach at that school, and so when the school term resumed this week, I got in touch with the school to see if I could get a message to the family to remind them about the workshops this weekend. I had given the mother my phone number and all the information about the program the previous year, but I hoped to give an additional reminder. The school is not legally allowed to give me the family’s contact details, but they first mentioned the music opportunity to the children’s father one day and suggested he or his wife should contact me. He apparently looked at the message-giver rather blankly! So the next day, the principal approached the older of the two children with a note for their mum, asking her to call me about the music opportunity and giving her my number. That was on Thursday. She didn’t call.

My other idea had been to try and get to the school at either drop-off or pick-up time to see if I could catch up with the mum there, but my work schedule didn’t allow that on Friday. In any case, I began to wonder if I was pushing something at them that they didn’t want to do. I thought about all the barriers that that might be stopping mum from calling me (such as no phone credit, or feeling unconfident speaking to me on the phone in English, or not wanting to say ‘No’ outright to me). But I also thought about how I would love for those two children to have the experience of going into ArtPlay, being greeted so warmly by the staff there, meeting the MSO musicians, playing music with me in this different context, feeling the thrill of being in such a beautiful space, purpose-built for art-making and young imaginations… and then after the workshop playing in the playground and feeling excited by what they had achieved and experienced.

Who knows, perhaps she has already registered the children for the workshops this weekend! I’ll find out when I get there I suppose. And if not this year, maybe I will be able to encourage them to come along next year. And if not them, someone else.

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!

Footage from ‘The Reef’ project with the Australian Chamber Orchestra

Back in May I wrote about The Reef education project that I led for the Australian Chamber Orchestra as part of the larger ‘Reef’ collaboration and tour.

The project was documented by Chris Duczynski from Malibu Media and the following film made as an inflight movie for Qantas. Watching this video brings back lots of memories of what a great 3-day project it was! I was working with 35 highly enthusiastic and engaged young people, fabulously supportive teachers, wonderful ACO musicians and the added extraordinary versatility and talents of composer Iain Grandage and didg player and guitarist Mark Atkins – it doesn’t get much better than that.

 

 

Who really wrote the Bach cello suites?

I spent this weekend down at ArtPlay, leading the MSO ArtPlay Open Workshops, which take place at the start of every year. These are fast-paced, one-hour composing workshops for children aged 8-13, and we promise parents that when they return to pick up their kids in an hour, we will have a new piece of music to perform for them.

We build the compositions around stories which the children create at the start of the workshop. The stories tend to be larger-than-life and go on remarkable flights of fancy and imagination. This year, aliens and outer space featured prominently. Here are a couple of that ilk:

Bach is sitting at his pianoforte, composing. Suddenly, aliens take over his piano. He realises that it is playing by itself, and he understands the code that the notes are spelling out. The code says, “We come in peace”. However, Bach is not convinced by this declaration of peace; rather, he is freaked out by his piano being taken over by aliens so he burns his piano. His (many) children help him remove the keys and throw them on the fire. Then, the aliens arrive in his house, and explain that they really mean him no harm. What happens next? Do they take over his body? Or do they work side-by-side and co-compose all of Bach’s celebrated works? Just WHO really wrote the cello suites in the end?

We are a band. We are the first band to be invited to play in outer space. We’re going to perform a concert for some NASA astronauts who are sitting in their space station, bored of all their CDs. We’re nervous as the rocket blasts off. We decide to rehearse. But while our clarinettist is putting their instrument together, the bell flies off (zero gravity) and lands in the engine of the rocket. Things get out of control and we crash land on Mars. Some Martians greet us. At first they are not particularly nice, but we play for them and they are so impressed they help us out by zapping us over the NASA space station with their zapping tool.

This particular workshop process has been in place for some time now and is well-honed and very effective. The creative twists of the stories the children invent (and the subsequent music they inspire) are a result of the group creative process, I believe. One idea sparks another, and the stories take on a life of their own, bouyed along by the energy of the group. The questions I ask are deliberately open-ended, aiming to provoke unexpected possibilities. You can read more about the Open Workshop process here (the “Workshop plan for finding bright, sparky kids” – one of my most popular posts), and about some of the stories from last year here. The Open Workshops double as a try-out for the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble program, which brings 28 young players (ages 8-13) and 4 MSO musicians together every school holidays to compose a new piece of music under my direction.

New music, new audience

Last night I went to the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s last concert in the Metropolis Festival of contemporary music at the Malthouse Theatre. Members of the current MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, who worked with me last month on a composition project inspired by Brett Dean’s Beggars and Angels, were also there in the audience. Good on them! They came along to Brett’s pre-concert interview (“Our youngest-ever pre-concert talk audience!” the Director of Artistic Planning told me delightedly) and then stayed for the concert – 2 hours of it. All contemporary music, where Webern was the most old-school of the composers presented.

“What did you think of the music?” I asked one of the youngsters, who was admittedly looking a little dazed at interval.

“Pretty good,” he told me earnestly, adding shyly, “It was a bit loud sometimes.” It certainly was, I agreed. This was the young violinist who had repeatedly, sweetly, raised in his hand during the workshops in April to ask, “Umm, Gillian, can we take a break now?” I felt impressed at his fortitude at what must have been a late-night concert for him.

However, I’m not imagining any great fortitude was required for the concert repertoire. I love seeing this age group (8-12) at contemporary music concerts. There is so much for them to experience – the huge range of unconventional sounds, the awesome virtuosity of some of the performers (last night we were treated to not one but two performances by pianist Michael Kieran Harvey, who is incapable of not making every single one of the notes he plays utterly compelling), the intensity and activity of the percussion section, the detail of the stage moves between pieces… it’s such a complete, alive, dynamic experience for them.

As I sat there, I found myself listening with two sets of ears and imaginations. One was for myself, but the other was imagining what the children were experiencing and noticing.  I’m looking forward to seeing them again in June when we remount our Beggars and Angels piece. I’m hoping they will bring lots of ideas from this concert experience with them.

Inclusive and participatory

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

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

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

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

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

Jam on Prokofiev

The Jam I am leading for the MSO next week is now a Jam on Prokofiev – specifically, the Romance from Lieutenant Kije by Prokofiev. If you are thinking of coming along (or don’t know this theme – made famous by Sting in his song Russians) you can see the notation and listen to a playthrough  by going here. Note though, this is not the original key.

Details of the Jam on Prokofiev are:

Tuesday 19 April

11.30am and 1.30pm (60 minute duration)

BMW Edge at Federation Square, Melbourne

Musical magpies

The main reason I returned to Melbourne in November was to lead the last two Jams at Federation Square for the year. Both were well-attended (around 50-70 in each, I’d say) – I’ve been gratified this year to see our numbers of teenage and adult instrumentalist participants increasing. When they are in large number, they balance out the under-5s that are also enthusiastic attendees, and so the musical outcome is much stronger for all involved.

I’m a bit of a ‘music collector’, I’ve realised. I love uncovering new musical ideas, and finding ways to apply them to the musical environments that I inhabit. This is a strong motivation for collecting original and unusual pieces of musical material from around the world. Unlike an ethnomusicologist, who is fascinated by what the music reveals about the community that performs it, and thus tries to keep that music as pure and unsullied as possible, I am more of a magpie. I collect musical ideas – melodies, songs, rhythms, riffs – and find ways to apply them to my own world. They change straight away, the moment I take them and try them out on my clarinet.

The Jam I led for the MSO this month contained two musical ideas I have ‘collected’ this year. One was a riff that I heard Mulatu Astatke (Ethiopian vibes player and his band) play in his Melbourne International Jazz Festival gig this year. I took the 5-note Lydian mode that formed the backbone of the piece, adapted a riff from it, shifted the key up so that it would be playable by young players, and made this the starting point for the Jam.

Halfway through, I introduced the Fataluku work chant that I learned just a few weeks ago in Lospalos – the corn-kernelling chant with the words cele cuku cele cuku lao ta ta te. We used the rhythm of this chant as an initial idea, but then all the Jam participants invented their own ‘work chant’. I asked them to think of a task or job they ften have to do, and invent a word riff that they could say to make this task less onerous, less boring. One of the ideas that emerged was:

Wash the dishes

Dry the Dishes

Turn the dishes

Over.

We invented word chants, isolated and memorised the rhythms formed by the syllables, then set these rhythms to music using the 5-note Lydian scale.

By the end of the Jam everyone had at least three original riffs to play, and could change from one to the next quite freely. The next step on from this would be to improvise on the 5-note mode, creating solos; from there things could get even freer in terms of pitches and harmony.

I felt happy too, to be sharing something I had learned so very recently with all the participants. It’s great to have a forum in which to explore something that is a completely new idea even for you.

Jams will be different in 2011. I am only leading one set of Jams at Federation Square; there will also be Family Jams AND Under-5s Jams at the Melbourne Town Hall as part of the MSO’s Beethoven Festival.