Archive for the ‘young musicians’ 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!

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.

 

 

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.

One more project to go

One last project to prepare for before I go off on my one-week holiday to Sandy Point (no mobile phone coverage, no landline, no internet). This weekend is the third gathering of the Signal Art Ensemble, a project I am directing with funds from the City of Melbourne and musicians from the Australian Art Orchestra.

With this project we are going to compose music to accompany some extraordinary visual images by the film artist Louise Curham, taking some initial guidance for our music from the compositional overview of SOAK by Alister Spence (being performed by the Art Orchestra later this year). The images are hypnotic – Super 8 film that has been treated and manipulated with imposed animations/scratches (?) over it, and very vivid, rich colours. Also some interesting superimposing of typeface. I think the young people will enjoy working with this material. (There’s a great sample of her work on You Tube, below).

It’s my last project at the end of a very full period of projects and performances, but fortunately it is also far less structured than the others. The focus in very much on improvisation and the young people taking part are full of ideas. Musically we might start off with some grounding work in improvisation (in particular ‘finding endings’ in free improvisations, playing in 10/8, and building up some ideas using a range of percussion instruments I shall bring in with me that are all made of metal – some gongs I bought in Cambodia, silver shakers that my mother brought back from Ethiopia for me, and a range of beautifully pitched bells that I bought years ago in Bulgaria.