Archive for the ‘training’ Tag

Wrapping up Community Music Leadership for 2015

In second semester each year I teach a 13-week Community Music Leadership course as part of Melbourne Polytechnic’s Bachelor of Music degree course. As part of their assessment for this subject, each student organizes to spend a minimum of 12 hours in a community music project, where their main goal is to observe an experienced music leader in action (rather than assuming a leadership role themselves). They are required to blog about these experiences, and the last class of the semester is run as a discussion forum, where everyone can share their reflections on what they have learned through the placement process and course content across the 13 weeks.

A student-led workshop exploring 'haptics' - a way of communicating musical ideas to deaf-blind musicians

A student-led workshop exploring ‘haptics’ – a way of communicating musical ideas to deaf-blind musicians

With 28 students in the class, there were too many people to accommodate a short presentation from each individual about their placement experiences, so instead we focus on small group sharing and reflection, followed by group presentations to the rest of the class. We had this final class on Thursday and it led to some lively discussion. Here’s a summary of some highlights:

Acceptance and non-judgment

A group of 5 students that did their placements in settings where the main participant groups had particular vulnerabilities/care requirements spoke very openly about how confronting and challenging some of their experiences had been, particularly during their first visits. They were working in settings such as juvenile justice detention, an immigration detention centre, a drop-in community centre for homeless and mentally-ill people, and a school for autistic children/youth.

A main learning that they described was the importance of acceptance as a central ethic and value. One described how, while he knew that some of the young people in his placement site had committed very serous crimes, he realized that he didn’t need or want to know who had done what. Instead, his role as a musician and music facilitator was to accept everyone in the group as fellow human beings, sharing a common interest in music. Another suggested that, on face value, some of the people he interacted with in his placement looked like people he might have wanted to avoid if he passed them in the street somewhere. He learned how quickly those preconceived ideas would block any genuine connection he could make with the music participants, that he needed to discard those notions of ‘knowing’ people and come to the experience in an open, warm, and accepting way.

This is the hospitality that is inherent in community music – what Community Music Victoria trainers call the “active welcome” that intends to draw people into the group, to feel welcome, valued, appreciated, and free to be themselves, without fear of judgment or not being “enough”.

Excellence

A dilemma that caused some frustration for one group revolved around ideas of “excellence”. The students in this group had all completed their placement hours with the same community orchestra – not a symphony orchestra but a very lively, informal group that plays mostly Balkan and East European music. Their frustrations revolved around a sense of passivity they perceived among the group members, and an apparent casualness about musical attainment and mastery. They felt that more effort could have been made in this group (by the leader? by the students themselves?) to achieve a higher standard of performance (they observed that the group members didn’t necessarily use the resources that were prepared for them to help in their at-home practice and learning; also that the group was working towards a very ambitious concert program that allowed little time to be spent going over musical details). Underlying their frustrations seemed to be a plaintive cry of “Why don’t they want to play better? Why isn’t that a priority for everyone here?”

Their arguments for a greater focus on mastery/attainment/excellence centred around the idea that a sense of ownership towards the group and its music could be achieved through participants being invested in their own progress and gradual mastery… they were less aware of the fact that for some members of the group, the pressure of having to ‘master’ their instrument or the music can detract from their enjoyment of the experience.

Their grappling with this highlighted the way that ‘excellence’ in community music activities often does not refer to musical excellence alone. It is also about excellence of experience, about quality of relationships, and about being able to set and influence the agenda of a group in collaborative ways.

Values

A third point of discussion was of the importance of identifying and articulating your values, so that these will form the foundation of everything that you do, and can also be used as a central point of reference in decisions about programs, directions, priorities, etc. The student that raised this as a key learning for her had spent sometime working closely with the administrative staff of Community Music Victoria, and CMVic’s values are certainly front and centre of everything they do, as their website attests.

Inclusion and exclusion

Students also debated the inclusion/exclusion dichotomy quite vigorously. They considered the paradox of “inclusive” projects where particular groups who might be typically marginalized from the mainstream are targeted for participation – does this then exclude the mainstream? They also observed the way that ‘opt-in/out’ projects (where participants decide for themselves the extent of their participation, interacting and participating according to their own interests and comfort levels) create space for people to exclude themselves – and does this therefore mean they are less inclusive than they intend? Can you be actively and deliberately inclusive without excluding some? In other words, are they essentially two sides of the same coin, and one cannot be present without the other?

We didn’t finish the student forum with any conclusions, more just a strong sense of the unresolvable nature of many of these questions. In community music there may not be any truly hard and fast rules of what to do and what not to do. Rather, the facilitator’s willingness to remember that “it depends”, and to remain alert to the subtle shifts and nuances within every group, adapting and adjusting in response to what they read and observe, is what determines their actions, choices, and leadership throughout the workshop and the project.

My hope with the Community Music Leadership course is that the students – most of whom are in the final semester of their music degrees – will recognize community music leadership as a viable and (hopefully) artistically-satisfying and inspiring part of the portfolio careers that many of them will go on to build. They were a good bunch of students (they always are), and I finished the semester reflecting on how satisfying it is to teach a subject that I feel so passionate about to a generally personable, curious and open-minded group of very versatile and talented musicians.

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