Archive for the ‘workshop’ Tag

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.

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!

Musician’s Toolkit

Last weekend Tony Hicks and I led a 3-hour workshop on free improvisation as part of the KEY program (the Australian Art Orchestra’s program of workshops at Signal in Melbourne). We call this series of short workshops the ‘Musician’s Toolkit’, because it focuses on skills and techniques that are useful for all musicians, playing in any genre. The KEY program is geared towards teenage musicians.

Here’s some footage and sound from the workshop – read on for a description of what we did to get to this point.

Getting started

Free improv is a big topic to tackle in just 3 hours! We started by discussing roles that you can take in an ensemble – assertive and passive, or foreground and background, for example. This led to our first whole-group improvisations, which were characterised by fairly homogenous playing, traditional sounds and tonalities, and very little space, and opened up dialogue about the importance of shape, structure, endings, and having both a macro and a micro view of the work.

Duos – switching roles

We then divided the group into duos and trios and asked them to develop together a short improvisation, in which all the players switched roles (ie. started in the foreground, but the move to the background, or vice versa).

Fast and loud

The performances that the duos and trios came back with highlighted the carefulness with which most of them played. To encourage a freer approach to sound and technique, Tony led a short, intense loud group improvisation, cueing the group as a whole or individuals to play loud and fast – as loud and fast as possible. The group visibly relaxed and became more animated during this task. They took more risks and exerted themselves far more.

Personal challenges

By now, we knew quite a bit about the roles and musical vocabularies each student tended to veer towards. We wanted to challenge these, and push them to discover some new possibilities for themselves and for the ensemble. We sat in a circle and Tony gave each person an individual ‘challenge’ or ‘project’ to focus on for the rest of the session. These included things like:

  • Singing and playing
  • Multiphonics
  • Incredibly fast, finger movements while exploring the full harmonic series (overblowing) on the instrument
  • Percussive articulations on wind instruments
  • Extremities of pitch, and playing for longer periods of time on the oboe
  • Inventing a scale (as a way of pushing people away from familiar tonalities)

Each person then spent 7 minutes (we were short on time at this point) getting to grips with this personal assignment. They then teamed up with 3-4 other players (of ‘like’ instrument or assignment, where appropriate), and worked together to incorporate these new ideas and sounds into small group improvisations.

Whole-group improvisations, second time around

We listened to the latest improvisations from the small ‘assignment’ groups, then drew everyone together again for some final whole-group improvisations. We’d heard some wonderfully inventive sounds from each of the sections.

“Let’s aim to have no more than 2 sections playing at a time,” suggested Tony, “until such time as the music demands more. Aim to maintain some space in the music…”

The difference between these improvisations and our earlier whole-group efforts was impressive – the young players now demonstrated a much greater sense of adventure, and a more acute awareness of the playing going on around them. They worked together in sections far more than earlier, and (generally) left a bit of space for other instruments. No-one played all the time.

Handing over responsibility, with a bit of information to get things started

I think that for this age group of young musicians, the range of tasks is key. They are motivated and engaged and will listen to explanations and ‘teacher-talk’; however, their independent work is really impressive. They get straight to task, work incredibly cooperatively, and generate some truly original material. It’s one of those situations where I think the challenge for the adults is to remember to get out of the way! The young people love to get input, but they also thrive on the independence and ownership of the task.

This was the first Toolkit workshop for the KEY program. We have another coming up in two weeks time, and more planned for next year. Each one is led by an Art Orchestra musician on a topic of their own choosing and in their particular area of expertise. As the workshops roll out, I will be logging what approaches and workshop structures are most effective with this age group. Today, the small group work opportunities gave the workshop a particular buoyancy and momentum.

Book-making on the verandah

Thursday, day 56

Last Friday, my visiting friends Victoria and Simon offered to lead a book-making project for local children on the verandah of my Lospalos house. Victoria is a community publishing specialist and works with communities to create books that reflect the makers back to them, in photographs, artwork and words. Lots of her work is with young children and their parents.

We asked Mana Er if she could gather a group of about 10 children. Of course she could, and at 8.30 on Friday morning, a group of 13 trooped up our driveway. Our driver Linu turned up to see what we were up to, and asked if he could bring along his nephew and niece to participate as well. So we were a group of 15 children and five adults all together, with the children ranging in age from 6 to 12 years old.

Book-making involves getting the children to make artwork, often on a particular theme. After some discussion, we decided on animals – each child drew a different animal.

While they were engaged with this, one by one Victoria photographed them against a plain green screen. She took several photos of each child, one with their name held above their heads, one as an action shot, and one with them holding up a specified number of fingers. All of these photos provide additional book themes – for example, the ‘numbers’ photographs could be used to make a counting book.


Taming the Lower Primaries – again

After the madness and borderline chaos of last week’s class, I approached the Lower Primaries this week with a steely plan in mind. First, I would make things as visual as possible, and try to ensure we kept things moving along (to avoid anyone slipping into distraction because of an inability to concentrate for more than 30 seconds at a time). Second, I needed to maintain a serene, calm, smiling mindset – hang in there with that serenity even in the face of wild revolution. And be sure to notice the small moments of engagement that can be very easy to miss.

The children arrived in relative calm. Their usual teacher was with this week, and that always helps. We went through our warm-up routine:

  • Standing up in a circle, copying small movements and gestures, in quick succession – eg. hand on head, hand on nose, move one hand to knee, move other hand to ear, etc. It gets them looking and focused, and they enjoy this simple kind of game very much.
  • Sit down super slowly, no hands (arms crossed over chest, legs crossed from the start). The aim is to sit down, cross-legged, as slowly as possible, without touching the floor with your hands. “Who will be the slowest?” I ask them, as we try this task together. Why do we do this? Again, it maintains their focus, it is a physical challenge, it requires coordination, it encourages concentration (in trying to be the slowest), and it is easy for everyone to see who is last, therefore they can copy and be inspired by each other.
  • Pass sounds around the circle one by one. This gets them used to taking turns. I also used this game to introduce the word ‘waiting’. Everyone has to wait for their turn to pass the sound on. There is a lot of waiting in music – when you are not playing, at this age, you usually feel like you are waiting! (because you are of course dying to play!)

Then I asked them to stand up and come to the piano. We sang the song we have learned this term – ‘Dham Dham Dham’ – a call-and-response song from India that we repeat several times, getting progressively faster each time.

Then I asked them to sit down in the chairs (arranged in a long line at one side of the room) and told them that Mel and I would get the instruments out now, so they needed to wait.

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Albury workshops

I spent most of last week up in Albury (Victoria-New South Wales border) working with the Sartory String Quartet and 23 local children from grades five and six. The project was part of the quartet’s Young Concert Artists residency at the Murray Conservatorium, for the Australian Youth Orchestra.

I led a 2-day composition workshop for the children that took the 3rd movement from Shostakovich’s String Quartet no. 8 as source material; together we created a series of short pieces on the idea of ‘fear’ and things that make us frightened, linked in performance with extracts from the Shostakovich.

We had a wonderfully responsive, bright, switched-on group of young musicians to work with. A great mix of instruments too, including 4 young guys playing electric guitars who made fantastic contributions to the project, and brought a whole new palette of colour to the composition process.  The group worked very hard over the two days, and on the second day it was gratifying to see how much they rose to a very focussed, mature, communicative level of performance, with a strong sense of individual ownership and responsibility for the outcome.

Two particular things resonated for me as I drove back to Melbourne on Saturday. One was a reflection on the ideal timing for musical direction in a project. There is a point towards the end of a project where the group is feeling pretty comfortable with the material, and that is the point to bring in smaller details of finesse and refining that can make a huge difference to a performance. Asked for too early, these are the kinds of things that can stress a group out, give them too many things to think about, and make them feel anxious. But once they feel themselves to be on the ‘home stretch’, I find they are absolutely primed for information, they absorb it and digest it like sponges, and remember it without stress or anxiety.

I wonder if this is in fact a piece of knowledge familiar to all directors? It is not something I have been taught or told by someone, but a point that I realise I have been aware of for some time, and am only now able to articulate and identify it as a key point in a project or rehearsal timeline for myself.

The other issue that I pondered on my drive home came from one of the quartet members. During our post-project debrief she asked about behaviour management, in particular of those more rowdy or excitable children who probably get hemmed in a lot by the rules of an environment, and who get told ‘no’ a lot. There was one child in particular in our group that this applied to. The quartet member felt concerned that this kind of child gets told ‘no’ too much, and that “Those are the kinds of children I most want to connect with in a project like this.”

The kind of behaviour that was getting the ‘no’ treatment included picking up instruments belonging to others, playing these when the owner wasn’t around, having lots and lots of energy that translated into lots of noise, lots of the time.  Nothing terrible at all, but not always appropriate or well-judged on the part of the young person, and at those times he was given a clear, unjudging request to desist!

Obviously, we want our workshop environment to be a creative one, where there is scope for different kinds of personalities, working styles, and energy levels.  It also needs to be safe – for the children, and for the instruments. And I knew what she meant about the sadness of him being told ‘no’, or ‘stop’ so many times… perhaps the balance needs to be in offering him a choice, such  as, ‘ask the person the instrument belongs to for permission to play it, and only do so when they are in the room with you’. Or ensuring that positive feedback and encouragement is given whenever appropriate, that good work is noticed and encouraged.

Music is a discipline, that requires the ability to listen and wait, as well as to play. It can be hard to learn that aspect of it – but it is crucial, because no-one has fun for long if it is all chaotic and undisciplined in a room full of instruments. In projects like this, I want the participants to have a sense of the thrill of making music as one of a group, of connecting with others both in terms of ensemble, and expression. To achieve that, there do need to be some basic ground rules about how we will interact and work within the space. Hopefully I set up an environment that then inspires all the participants to work within those boundaries.

What makes a workshop?

After the Note To Self performance on Saturday night a friend and I started pondering the different kinds of workshops and workshop processes that are out there. There is a spectrum I think, that stretches from quite directed/directive processes, where there is little scope for being changed or swayed by content that comes from the participants, to very open, responsive processes.

My projects are closer to the latter, with an emphasis on material being generated through content ideas offered by participants. I will often have musical structures in mind, or place restrictions on their offers (such as modes or pitch groups or time signatures, or specific ways to start or finish), and I may even have some pre-written sections that need to be learned; but there will still be large sections of the work that are unknown at the start of the project, to be realised through the creative process.

Directed processes have their merits – they offer very tangible experiences to the participants and can give a sense of being part of something ‘official’ or endorsed, somehow. In music, it can be a sense of having learned ‘real’ music, as oposed to just ‘making stuff up’. From an audience point of view (especially for an uncritical, non-educator audience) it can seem like the directed process is the more successful of the two approaches, as the results are often more ‘adult’ in their delivery, with less open to chance or possibility. Process can be a difficult thing to take into account, or credit (for the uninitiated), if you are only exposed to the outcome of a project.

Today I worked with the Sartory String Quartet, the Australian Youth Orchestra’s string quartet that will be resident in Albury at the Murray Conservatorium for the next 8 weeks or so. We will be doing two separate education projects with local primary school children as part of their residency, so today’s session was an introduction to the way I work in this context, and to get them thinking about what the children will get out of the project, and what they themselves would like to get out of the project.

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