Archive for the ‘warming up’ 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.


Observing musical leadership

As the person who is usually the project leader, I’ve loved just being a member of the full ensemble for last week’s Beethoven project, leading a small group, playing my instrument (bass clarinet that week) and watching another person lead the overall process. It has been an opportunity to observe someone with a very similar process to my own (which means I have some insights into where he is taking the group with the different tasks he sets) shape and guide the musical content as it evolves.

Firstly, it’s been interesting to be on the receiving end.  I’ve needed to receive and interpret instructions, to respond to tasks without knowing how the material would be used in the overall composition – all the things that participants in my projects experience and respond to. I’ve noticed different things about the group energy and about the leader’s energy that I can use in my own projects, through participating in someone else’s project.

I’ve loved observing the way that Fraser asks questions and sets tasks for the group. I think that the skill of asking questions (or setting tasks) in a creative project is one of the most important skills, and it is a subtle art in itself. The way that tasks are given – the words that are used, the clarity of the starting point, the restrictions or essential criteria that inform how all the different groups’ creations will fit together in the larger piece – makes a huge difference to what each of the groups come up with in response. Some of Fraser’s questions or tasks are similar to ones I like to use, but others are different, and it’s been valuable to be able to hear these, and observe the ways groups have responded.

On warm-ups

We started each day with a warm-up. I know that for me, a good warm-up has always been a cornerstone of a project, a powerful way to assert the spirit of a project and build a cohesive sense of the group. However, sometimes of late, I’ve begun to question the efficacy of warm-up activities with some groups. For example, at Pelican PS I’ve learned that warm-ups really throw the older students off. They find them too confusing, too unrelated. Lessons at Pelican work better if we jump straight into the day’s work with no preamble or easing-in. Similarly, I find that the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble children often arrive on the second day of a project ready to work. They need very little group warm-up at all, and I’ve wondered if the workshop really benefits from the process.

There was one day this week where I arrived feeling incredibly tired and lacklustre. As Fraser got the workshop started I decided to observe myself in the warm-up, and compare how I felt at the end of it to how I felt at the beginning. I wanted to monitor its effectiveness on me.

That morning, Fraser taught us the Chair game. (The children loved this game. They wanted to present it to their parents at the end of the week. One of the MSO players said he wanted to play it all day. Fraser expressed amazement at the oddly frenzied way our group played it – unlike any other group he’d ever played it with, he said). By the end of the game, I realised that I did indeed feel more relaxed, awake, alive, and definitely ready to work. So, I shall persevere with my warm-up investigation for my projects.

It was also interesting to see Fraser teach another warm-up game that I often teach here. It is one I learned in England during my studies there, and I always loved it, always found it incredibly fun, energy-building, focus-generating, playful… However, it has never really worked here. It involves people using their voices and physical gestures. I’ve never been able to get a group in Australia to generate the kind of energy that the game needs to work its magic. It wasn’t all that different for Fraser either, and we talked about this later – the game was fun, but it never quite worked. Perhaps it is just a game that doesn’t suit the Australian psyche or energy, or the way we use our voices… or our relationship with our voices. Interesting.