Archive for the ‘workshops’ 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.

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Desert Music in City Beats

In City Beats this week we created music about The Desert. Four groups from four schools came to ArtPlay over two days, and each group created four sections of music – a song, a melody, a soundscape and a rhythmic groove. At the end of the workshop we discussed how to structure and order the four sections of music, and finished with a recorded performance of the whole piece.

City Beats, ArtPlayThis was our first City Beats project for the year, so we will see the children and their teachers 3 more times across 2013. I see the first workshop as a time for all of us to get to know each other, and for the children and teachers to get a sense of what they will be doing each time they come to ArtPlay for City Beats.  We started the session with introductions, with the MSO musicians introducing ourselves and demonstrating our instruments. Then we did a quick rhythmic warm-up, including a name game in which everyone had to say their name in turn (thus demonstrating to the groups that their voices and contributions mattered), and a fast-clap-around-the-circle, which quickened the group’s responses and got them relaxed and laughing.

Then we brainstormed ideas about the desert (things you might see, hear or find there) and divided into smaller groups to start the composing process. I took charge on the songwriting groups.

Lyrics, Dandenong PS. City Beats 2013There were many memorable and special moments across the two days of workshops. I loved seeing the way the children I worked with took charge of things. In the first group, we made the mistake of setting the pitch of our song much too low for the children’s voices. I waited to see how they might solve the problem. One girl started to sing the song a fifth up – it sounded cool! – then said to me, “We need to change it because it doesn’t… feel -” she hesitated to find the words, so I said, “Because it’s too low? To  make it higher?” “Yes,” she said emphatically. “It needs to be higher.” I got her to sing it on her own, matched her chosen pitches on the clarinet, and we found we had a much more effective melody than the one we’d started with.

I asked a girl in one of my groups to hold my clarinet for me while I wrote lyrics on the whiteboard. “You just have to be careful of the very top of it,” I assured her. “That’s the only bit than can break easily.” She took it from me carefully. As I wrote I could hear the other children in the group whispering to her, “You’re so lucky you get to hold it!” “Can I have a turn?”  I imagined them leaning toward the clarinet to have a closer look. I wondered if the little girl would be warning them off, or examining it for herself. I didn’t turn around to look. When I’d finished writing, I turned to her and she passed the clarinet back to me, holding it at exactly the angle it had been at when I’d passed it to her. I felt truly touched at the care she’d taken. “Thank you for looking after my instrument so carefully and so beautifully,” I told her.

Some children sought out possible rhymes for their lyrics. A good rhyme can make a song catchier and easier to remember, but a forced rhyme can feel very cumbersome and awkward, so I don’t tend to put too much emphasis on rhyming in a fast-paced songwriting session. However, these children initiated the idea. In one song, we had the lyrics:

Rattle, rattle, rattle, the rattlesnake goes

Swish, swish swish the wind blows the palm trees.

One of the group said suddenly, “Can we cross out these words?”, pointing to “the palm trees”. “Sure,” I said, but then realised why – it was so that the line would end with “blows”, in order for it to rhyme with “goes” in the previous line. I hadn’t noticed that possibility. Once we had the shorter line, we realised it needed an extra word to make it scan properly. It was easy to add an adjective at that point.

Lyrics, Dandenong North PS, City Beats 2013

I love the set-up of the verses of the song above – I think the idea of having a ‘sound’ word repeated three times as a way of introducing a feature of the desert is a very 10-year-old approach – and therefore highly appropriate – to lyric-writing! They tried some others – “walk walk walk, the camel goes”, but they weren’t as convincing. If they’d said ‘spit’ or ‘bump’ I may have been persuaded :-).

One of the groups came from an English Language School (an intensive English language-focused school for children who are newly-arrived in Australia; students can spend 6-12 months at language school before transitioning to mainstream school). Their desert song was the only one that featured Australian desert animals like dingos and kangaroos.

Lyrics, NPELS, City Beats

The City Beats ‘Desert’ workshop structure felt very effective and time-efficient – I think I may use it as a template for the remaining City Beats workshops. Dividing into 4 small groups gives us a range of musical responses that can be ordered and combined, and it means that over the course of the year, the children will gain skills and confidence in different group-composing approaches.

Music Construction Site

During the first week of the school holidays, I led the first workshops of my 2012 project series at ArtPlay. We set up the Music Construction Site – a busy place of work and activity where the tools of the trade were percussion instruments of all shapes and sizes (as well as any instruments the construction workers chose to bring along with them), and the construction took the form of a large graphic score, made up of images and symbols denoting the children’s sounds and musical inventions.

There were two workshops – one for 5-8 year olds and their parents, and the other for 9-12 year olds. Here are some images from the day:

We started the 5-8 year olds with a bit of free exploration of the different instruments, letting them get a feel for the tools:

Once everyone had invented a sound or musical fragment, they needed to create its blueprint (graphic score):

We used symbols and images to make decisions about the best way to order and structure all our sounds. Here, I’m talking about the role of “the element of surprise” in a piece of music:

ArtPlay is situated in Birrarung Marr. If the weather is fine we can send some groups to work outside.

At the end of the workshop, we put all the sounds in order and play through the score.

The next workshops at ArtPlay will be on Sunday 17th June. This time, we’ll be boarding the New Music Express – transforming stories into music!

Artists inviting possibility

I am often approached by young musicians who want to develop workshop skills and get some more experience working with groups of children. This year, I’ve got a formal mentoring relationship set up. Ryan, a young recorder soloist and highly creative individual (based on our conversations thus far!), approached me at the end of last year to see if I could work with him to develop a workshop program for children that he could deliver as part of a broader touring and performance program.

Good on him! So far, we’ve mapped out a plan of action that includes developing a 2-hour workshop for primary school children that gets them to create their own music and embed it within a larger, contemporary solo work for recorder. Ryan is also going to spend some time in other workshops with me throughout the year, shadowing me and developing a repertoire of approaches and strategies for developing compositions with children.

At our first meeting, we focused on WHAT  – what is Ryan’s main aim? Is it a workshop that lasts a day? A few hours? Is it a longer residency? Is it a tailored approach, or an ‘off-the-shelf’ framework that he can adapt as he goes? Is it something that can link to his performance skills and concert-giving?

Ryan emphasised the importance of ‘being able to leave something behind’. He was well-aware of the weaknesses of the ‘parachute’ model (where the glamorous, charismatic visiting artist parachutes in, does their arts project, then leaves just as swiftly, with little of substance left in their wake). At the same time, I countered, a visiting artist has to be realistic about what is possible. You are a visitor. You are only there for a short time – a matter of hours, usually. Anything sustainable is going to require the buy-in and efforts of the class teacher. You have no control over what they do or don’t do in the classroom with relation to your visit, no matter how valuable such input might be.

Perhaps therefore, the artist’s visit is about inviting possibility for individual participants, with tangible skills and tools being part of the outcomes for the participants, but also the intangibles of inspiration, example and possibility. The next steps that individuals may take after a workshop experience – such as re-producing and re-experiencing their workshop outcome with you without your guidance, or furthering their skills and concepts through independent research, or simply the motivation to seek out further opportunities – are essential to a sustained ‘legacy’ from a workshop, given that music itself doesn’t result in any kind of physical artefact. How to plant the strongest, most potent and robust seeds, then, is the next big challenge for the artist! We’ll start looking at content in our next meeting together; meanwhile, Ryan is going to get busy reading Keith Johnstone, Graeme Leak and others on inspiring creative outcomes in groups.

Video of the Toka Bo’ot event, East Timor

I’ve just uploaded another video from my East TImor residency. You can view it here:

This one was a true labour of love to edit – you’ll have to forgive a few odd transitions, and please admire all the segues that line up the musical phrases without skipping a beat, as I was working with very fragmented raw footage for this project!

‘Secrets of the Night Air’

During my last few days in Timor, before heading to Australia, I realised I knew what I wanted my ‘theme’ or compositional starting point to be for the Lospalos project. Secrets. What are the things about Lospalos that only people from there would know? What are the stories that get told? Already, the two teenage girls that live with me have talked about magic, the magic of the land… I have heard the olohoto quarter-tone birdsong that everyone there recognises as belonging to the local environment… what are some of the other things about Lospalos, the people, the language, the traditions, that could be classed as secrets that can be shared?

Secrets have a kind of power. They are often shared in dramatic or clandestine ways. They invite emotional attachment.

Children’s secrets will be different to adults’ secrets. I also like the fact that in asking this question of the people who work with me, I am putting them in the position of Expert. There is no way that I already have this knowledge. This is important, because the education system here is one that works with a very teacher-centred model, where teachers do all the talking, and students must write down what they say, memorise, and repeat back. Very little applied learning, collaborative work, problem-solving, constructivist environments. It is a big thing to introduce these sorts of notions to a group for the first time, and I think they will make more sense if the context in which they are explored is one where I – in the role of the teacher – clearly don’t already know the answers.

Our working title for this project is ‘Secrets of the Night Air’. It’s open to the public – Lospalos, 7pm, Saturday 22 January 2011. You can track its development here of course!

On being a facilitator

Thursday last week was the culmination of the Thinking about Forever project, which I worked on back in March with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the Parramatta String Players and composer Matthew Hindson. My role was as the workshop facilitator, and I directed the process that led to the young musicians composing their own music material with dancers in mind, and in response to the given theme of ‘sustainability’. Six months on and the music we created over that intensive weekend has been worked into an inspired and deft score by Matthew, the music then recorded by the ACO and choreographed by Kay Armstrong and the YouMove dance company. Last Thursday it was presented at the Riverside Theatre in Parramatta, to an audience of school students from throughout Western Sydney and a number of invited guests from the Australia Council Executive, and other arts organisations.

The facilitator role is an interesting one. What does it mean to facilitate, and to facilitate well? I think of it as being responsible for establishing the right creative environment for the project initially, and then initiating or provoking a series of responses to a task by the participants. As the group work gets underway, the facilitator role is to guide, scaffold, model and encourage, as necessary. Ultimately, the facilitator’s role includes stepping away and allowing the group to work and present themselves independently. I think about the origins of the word ‘facilitate’ coming from ‘to make easy’. A good facilitator moves participants through a process in a way that makes it easier for them.

It can be quite an invisible role. In some ways, the mark of a good facilitator might be in their capacity to step back at critical point where the group is able to work completely independently, and to have guided them in such a way that when they look back on it, they remember the process as one where they did everything themselves, by themselves. I’m exaggerating slightly – but only slightly!

One of the nice things about this project was that my role in drawing the young musicians’ compositional ideas from them, and guiding them to build these into a larger structure, was very much acknowledged, alongside that of Matthew’s work as the composer who drew those ideas into a fully-realised, through-composed score, and Kay Armstrong the choreographer. It’s an acknowledgment that everyone in a creative team brings something to the project, that if one of the group hadn’t been there, the outcome would have been very different. Thinking about Forever has been a very satisfying project to work on – a great collaboration between a large number of creative minds, from the very young, to the seasoned professionals.

More games…

U.S-based games specialist Mike Spiller added a comment to my stick-passing game post. For people looking for some new games to play with groups as ice-breakers or to help groups develop specific skills (such as communication skills, memory skills, etc) his site is worth a visit.

Getting improvisation started…

A quick post: a colleague sent me a message asking for ideas on ways of getting improvisation started with a group of young flute players. The forum we were using seemed to have trouble sending back my response, so here it is for all to enjoy! Just a few quick initial ideas – if you try any, please let us know how they went, using the Comments section below.

Flute students improvising – I tend to start with soundscapes, or narratives that encourage them to explore unusual sounds… go from that into 5-note modes… if you have a little group you could set a mode and time signature, get them each to make up their own riff and layer this up one after the other. Then try out solos one by one over this.

Also inventing away from the flute (body percussion/voices) can be a good way to break down inhibitions. And warm-up games to get people being playful and less self-conscious.

I also think lifting little riffs and phrases from repertoire they are learning, and using this as an accompaniment for individuals to solo over or as a starting point for a longer solo, can work well. Also setting rules, such as each person chooses a note and a place in the bar to put that note. See what melody emerges when all the individual notes get put together. Then everyone learn the melody (great for aural training). Then practise 4 bars of the single notes version, 4 bars of the unison melody version, switching from one to the other. This kind of thing is a big mental challenge, but the players can develop fluency quite quickly once they get their heads around it.

Lastly, keep in mind the value of familiar structures, like ternary form for riff-based pieces (getting them to switch from Riff A to Riff B, then back again, after a set number of repetitions), and similar patterns for melodic invention, eg. ABAC. Call and response, question and answer – all these things are good to get things started.

My first post in ages! More to come soon, I hope. Overseas travels, then hitting the ground running with work, have made me a very quiet blogger.