From Sally Whitwell: It’s a new day

I’ve been thinking a great deal about classical musicians and creativity recently, following my experience as a performer and composition workshop presenter for teenagers at the Perth International Arts Festival (PIAF).

It was rather shocking to me to hear from various people in the festival management that they found it very difficult to get the classical performers appearing in the festival to do creative workshops as well. A quick skim of the festival program confirmed their fears to me. Apart from a sprinkling of masterclasses aimed at already pretty well heeled classical performers plus the ubiquitous pre-concert talks, there wasn’t anything actually creative going on in the education programs for classical music.

By way of comparison let’s take the Arena Theatre Company directed by Chris Kohn as an example. They created something called The House of Dreaming, a kind of sculptural installation piece, a magical ‘house’ into which no grown ups were allowed. To go along with this piece, they also presented a wonderful workshop Build an Ear-o-polis, described in the festival program thus;

The Ear-o-polis workshop is an innovative interactive theatre and sculptural experience for primary students. With the help of new wireless technology participants create their own strange and surprising worlds where everyday objects emit bizarre and unearthly sounds. Shoes growl, hats sing and balls squeal with laughter!

This makes me want to be eight years old again. Isn’t it wonderful?

On the other hand, the classical music education events were described in this manner “World renowned musicians X&Y demonstrate the magic of Z in a masterclass”. Yawn. I didn’t have the chance to attend any of my colleagues’ workshops, but I’m sincerely hoping they weren’t as dull as their blurbs!

But I digress. The point here is not about the quality of the classical music workshop blurbs, which were pretty uniformly dull and uninspiring (there’s a whole other blog post in that, lemme tell ya!). No, it’s about the fact that creativity and classical music seem to be viewed as separate things. Why is this? Is it because classical musicians just aren’t creative? I’m pretty sure that’s not the case. Is it because we fear that we haven’t the skills to show others how to be creative? Quite possibly. Is all this the result of a gap in traditional classical music education? In short, yes.

I agree wholeheartedly with everything Mr. Sandow has said here about incorporating creativity into the music schools of the world. I’m going to take this a step further by saying this kind of work should start much earlier in a music education, at a Primary School level (translation: “Primary School” is Australian for “Elementary School”). In an effort to fill this educational gap, I have started presenting composition workshops for children. It was a genuine surprise to me that I discovered I had the ability to do this. I don’t have any official training as an educator, nor as a composer. What I do have however is a stack of on-the-ground experience with kids, plus good aural skills and a very decent grounding in harmony and counterpoint.

In mid 2012, I was invited to workshop a new song with junior/intermediate choristers from Woden Valley Youth Choir (WVYC). These kids come from my hometown, Canberra, Australia’s national capital, a city that is much maligned by many Australians because it represents to them nothing but despicable lying politicians. Any local resident will tell you this is far from the truth, but sadly the myth endures. Anyway, WVYC’s powerhouse of a director Alpha Gregory wanted a new song that would be for and by and about the kids themselves and the lives that they live in their really very beautiful city.

My memories of my hometown childhood largely revolve around Lake Burley Griffin, named after the American architect who designed our city.

by Richard O'Neill

Lake Burley Griffin by Richard O’Neill

I thought it would be a great subject for a song, and something that all the kids could identify with. They spoke excitedly about the beautiful Whitwell workshopparklands around the lake, the birdlife, riding their bikes (Canberra has a great network of bicycle paths) and watching fireworks displays etc. We workshopped text for the song by making lists of nouns, verbs and adjectives and then fitting them together into sentences. We workshopped melodies by my giving them a ‘menu’ of notes they could fit together into melodic material. We made some of the resultant melodies into canonic material, we deconstructed them to make cells that could act as ostinati, we made a little whispered soundscape of anticipation using some of the texts we’d written.

The result was something we’re all very proud of! Of course, most of the kids were simply too young to have anywhere near the skills to write down their musical ideas, but that’s what the staff were there for (I even drafted in a local composer Sally Greenaway  and a couple of composition students from the local music school). After the workshop, I took all the kids’ ideas away with me and put them together into a song they could perform themselves. Have a listen:

Alpha, the choir’s director, sent me a happy little email after the first rehearsal of the new song. She described to me the kids’ excited exclamations of “That’s my line!” and “I wrote that bit!” when they saw the song in print and sang it with their friends. I don’t really like speak for the kids because it’s always much better to hear it coming out of their own mouths, but I imagine it’s a very powerful experience for them to see something of their own creation come to life like this, not just sanctioned but encouraged by adult professional musicians and eventually enjoyed by a concert hall full of appreciative listeners.

In my perfect world, all kids would have this opportunity to be creative with music. Kids in school are always writing stories and poems and painting pictures and taking these things proudly home to show their parents and music should be the same. I think the problem might be that there are not enough musicians who have the confidence in their own skill set to facilitate creativity. Perhaps more of us need to take the risk and try leaping into the unknown. Recently there was an article  in Huffington Post by one of my favourite creatives, Tina Fey. In it she encourages the reader to “Say yes, and you’ll figure it out afterward”. I know it sounds hopelessly hippy and cheesy, but this is how I came to presenting these composition workshops, I said yes to the opportunity and trusted in my solid knowledge of music theory and my own tendency to push against the sides of the proverbial box to get me through them.

If I’d had the opportunity to experiment with these kinds of creative skills during my own music education, I’m sure I would have started to do these workshops much earlier on. How can we give today’s young musicians that opportunity?

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  1. says

    Awesome! This reminds me of a time I volunteered to teach some Vietnamese inner city youth how to write songs. The only thing they knew about music was karaoke. So I asked them if anyone had ever hummed a random melody in the shower or something. One or two raised their hands. Then I divided the students into groups of songwriting teams, with the “hummers” lending their melodies to the teams. I taught them about basic ABABCAB song structures for their melodies, and told them to add lyrics to these more developed melodies. Then I played guitar to their melodies. They were quite shocked that they could write music. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the music that came out of a crowd that only sang karaoke. If you can hum, you can create music.

  2. says

    Great to read the reflections of a fellow Canberran. I’m now in Brisbane, and carrying out similar workshops regularly with Topology, an ensemble of musicians with classical backgrounds, and we share your passion for focusing on creativity and fostering participants in co-creating new music with us, especially in our “Top Up” program which involves students in creating new music with us that we then perform in our concert series at the Brisbane Powerhouse

    • says

      Canberrans unite!

      I love what you do with Topology, although I don’t get to Brisvegas very often to witness it.

      I was wondering… do you ever do workshops aimed at younger kids? The Top Up program is so wonderful, but I do feel quite a bit of your work could be really appealing to younger kids in a workshop type situation, for instance that “From Small Things Grow” thing you did with the fabulous Clocked Out peeps. Little kids would be fascinated by that, I am sure of it.

  3. says

    One further thing – some of the text the kids wrote that day might be difficult to hear in this live performance, so have a read of their beautiful words.

    “Something’s starting to stir,
    Excited for what the new day will bring!
    It’s a new day!

    Sunlight pours over the mountains
    Reflections mirrored on the crystal blue
    Boats in the icy water, drifting away,
    Spreading ripples in the fountain spray.

    It’s a new day!

    Swans so elegant drifting by
    Cormorants basking in the midday sun.
    New bird-call, I look for the caller
    Rough bark of a silver birch on my skin.

    It’s a new day!

    Happy and free, laughing in the sun all day,
    Fire in the sky, I want to fly, I want to glide away.

    It’s a new day!”

    In a couple of years when they’re more experienced choristers, their diction will be completely immaculate!!

    • says

      The song is gorgeous–can it be published? As a church music director, we’re always looking for great songs for the kids’ choir to sing. Especially nature-themed songs, as Earth Day approaches. I think most of us have melodies knocking around in our heads, but don’t have the ability to translate them into a fully-realized song, much less with “harmony and counterpoint!” Thanks so much for sharing this!

      • says

        Hi Bonnie. Thanks so much! I would need to ask the permission of the young composers themselves, but I am sure they would be absolutely thrilled for other young people around the world were to sing their music.

        • says

          I see, possibly, an entrepreneurial project for you. As you do more of these songs for kids, publish them (of course with the kids’ permission, and with the kids listed, with all their names, as coauthors). And share whatever money gets made with the organizations you worked with. For a parallel example, Google Anderson & Roe, a wonderfully creative piano duo in the US. They do a lot of arranging, to add to their repertoire, ranging from Schubert’s Erlkonig (in a killer arrangement) to Radiohead. So then they publish and sell their arrangements. Spins naturally out of what they’re doing, and out of all the exposure they get from touring, from their marvelous videos, and from their CDs.

          Once you’d made a name for yourself and the kids, with the kids’ music, you could then, if you wanted to, add another product line, of music you write by yourself.

  4. says

    Sally, I blogged about these issues a couple years ago when I first heard about a similar composition initiative by the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra. I’ll quote the promo blurb I got from their mailing list email to me for convenience sake:

    For the third presentation in the 2010-2011 edition of our educational series Music of the Whole World, the VICO is proud to feature the future of intercultural music, in the making: student composers from Seycove Secondary School in North Vancouver will present new pieces they have written for tar, oud and santur, performed by VICO musicians. This event is part of VICO in the Schools, an innovative workshop program through which VICO musicians and instructors introduce students to a selection of non-Western instruments and impart techniques for composing intercultural music.

    I’ve been doing something similar when my Klingon band is participating in Sci-Fi conventions. We often give educational panels and workshops and one I do solo is an “Alien Music for Kids” the description I give to the conventions for their program books is:

    j’onn the singing Klingon presents: “Alien Music for Kids”

    Veteran xenomusic educator of youths from all galaxies, j’onn, will explore making Alien music in this workshop designed for Terran children. j’onn will teach some common children’s songs from many planets as well as demonstrate how to make musical instruments out of everyday found objects. This is not a sit-down and listen workshop and very active participation, and open mindedness, is not only encouraged–but required!

    Ironically, I get more [stand-alone] gigs for kids presenting World music instruments/styles and the above than I ever do for the cello.

    • says

      Thanks for linking to your blog John, fantastic stuff! Congratulations.

      And I really love what you’re doing with your Klingon band. I’m a bit of a Trekkie myself, so this is close to my heart. Even though to outsiders that might seem just a tad frivolous, I can see what you’re doing there is super important and not dissimilar to what I’m trying to do a lot more of i.e. going into a community (any community, place, even subculture) and speak to them in their language about their own people in a very immediate way and create something that expresses that. Do you have any recordings available of your Klingon songs? I am so keen to hear them!

      • says

        Thanks, Sally!

        Nice to meet a fellow Trekkie, then–Cheers! I think what Nicole Canham said in Greg’s previous post about different aspects of Classical Music (the atonal vs tonal and the traditional concert experience) becoming niches is insightful here. To outsiders, practically any field is going to seem a bit frivolous, right? They’re all convenient excuses for low arts attendance as Joe Patti said (and Greg has made similar points here).

        One of the reasons I started doing the Alien Kids workshop was specifically because I heard through the grapevine that some of the parents who take kids to conventions wanted something like that. Since some of those Con-goers knew that my Klingon band, in it’s normal guise, is a world music band they thought we’d be the perfect representatives to present a non-Eurocentric/non-Western musical viewpoint since that seems to be one of the hot debates in Geek cultures these days.

        And really it was just an outgrowth of the various music projects I’m currently in and have been in–musical culture is fragmented, and increasingly so. It’s going to be harder for all of us to be relevant and we’re all (no matter the genre) going to have to find new ways to make what we’re doing work.

        Here’s a small sampling of the Klingon band.

        Before we did the Klingon thing, we approached Sci-Fi and Fantasy Conventions more from the “world music presenting organization” angle and just started learning the “standards” (e.g. The Star Wars Cantina song; the Fremen tune from the Dune series, “Inama Nushif”). We’ve since been writing our own material, especially as we’ve been developing our Klingon Ballet, “wa’ SaD ram wa’ ram je.” I just uploaded the audio from the Wookiee song I wrote for a dancer friend–the video of our performance went viral last year and had appeared on the UK’s “50 funniest moments of 2012” this past December.

        I didn’t include any of the music I wrote for the Klingon Christmas Carol play, but some clips from that score may be found here:

        • says

          I’m grinning from ear to ear as I read all this. The pure fun, the joy of it! The Klingon approach is just brilliant. First, who doesn’t love Klingons? (Ever since they became good guys.) There’s been so much joyful work put into developing their language, etc., so of course their music has a context already made for it.

          And clearly they’re not Europeans!

          • says

            It’s been a blast doing this. We’ve actually found ourselves in a similar position to Mark Okrand (the creator of the Klingon Language) in that there are some snippets of the music in the series/movies (I’ve compiled a list of most of that here)–and obviously “Klingon Opera” has become an ubiquitous trope within the franchise and amongst the fans. The first Klingon Opera by the Klingon Terran Research Ensemble in the Netherlands, ‘u’, just had its final performance this past February.

            Mark Okrand has also written a chapter on Klingon Music in his book, “Klingon for the Galactic Traveler,” so much of what informs our direction for our original Klingon music takes its cue from that and the snippets that appear in the franchise as well as in other licensed works (primarily the Star Trek novels and comics).

            For those wondering about the return on investment–since a project like this involves costs that are more similar to theatrical type performances (costumes and props)–I can safely say we’ve had some of our most profitable gigs as a group doing this, and (as I mentioned above with the score for the Klingon Christmas Carol) have gotten some relatively well paid related work. There is, of course, the difficulty of navigating the thin line of using trademarked properties that all of the organizations I’ve mentioned have to deal with on a regular basis.

    • says

      First, I just love your Klingon music! Was watching/hearing some of it via your Facebook page. Just brilliant, and so much fun. And about getting more gis presenting World music than cello — I’m not surprised. It may come as a shock to classical music traditionalists, who define (naively) classical music as the pinnacle of all music, but the world has changed. We know we’re no longer in a white/western-dominated world, and we’re aware not just of the importance of diversity, but the delight of it, the interest of it, the pure joy of it. So of course teachers want their students to have contact with the wide world of music, not just classical. Not, by the way, that I’m assuming your cello gigs are totally classical. I don’t have any actual knowledge of what you do, but I can imagine you’re as diverse and delightful on the cello as you’d be playing anything else.

      • says

        Thanks, Greg–glad you enjoy the music and the approach. And yes, we and our audience, have a lot of fun with it. And yes, as I posting the first reply to Sally’s blog above I was in the middle of negotiating coming to an elementary school in Louisville to show the kids the new possibilities on the cello–the teacher requested I come as a Klingon!

        Doing Sci-Fi conventions are very much like residencies–we’re usually not there just to perform but also to give panels and workshops (such as the Alien Music for Kids workshop I mentioned above). One of the other presentations we give is a Xenomusic panel where we describe some of the process of developing “alien music” and we tell audiences that given our world music background and classical training we use both as points of departure for creating something that sounds “foreign” to Western audiences since we have ample musical resources for doing that. We often demonstrate the different techniques (scales, rhythmic modes, performing styles, improvisation) that we use from various cultures to construct the Klingon music in addition to the canonical sources I mentioned in one of my posts above.

        My entrepreneurial philosophy, what Eric Edberg once referred to as my recession-proof career approach is simply what most financial advisers will advise their clients for the investment portfolios–Diversify you Performing Skill Portfolio! This paragraph from my post sums it up the best:

        Basically the idea is that the more diverse your performance skills (i.e. assets), then the more opportunities you will have for getting work. In other words, you’ll get higher returns (e.g. more gigs) with lower risk on any one investment (e.g. time and resources that is put into one developing any one particular performance skill). What good is it being a highly trained specialist in 14th century lute performance if there are no performing opportunities for lute, right?

        While most of my musician colleagues, friends, and acquaintances were complaining of the lack of work during the recession (this includes the pop/rock musicians I often perform with) I was consistently finding more work and as I said in my Strategic Scheduling post, I was being more selective about what gigs I took and was getting increasingly better paying gigs.

        I’m constantly developing or joining new musical projects, some of which don’t work out, and some of which work very well–with everything in between. Some of the projects are in various stages of activity depending on how far they’ve been developed (e.g. how much material for performance/presentation it has ready), are on a temporary hiatus, or are performing regularly. Most freelancers understand this drill–but I think that in many cases with freelancers (and I’ve been there and have done/do this, too) they are piggy-backing on other projects (playing with a regional orchestra, wedding/special events gigs, local fill-in sideman for a touring act) rather than actively developing their own projects. Or their R&D is limited to a small number of (or possibly one) pet projects.

        I think my previous statement above is the crux of the issue–we all have to become our own Research & Development (R&D) departments for our own musical careers–and I think that’s exactly what most of your guest bloggers are talking about!

  5. says

    One way is to link into Musica Viva In Schools. This is exactly what the program was set up to do – get kids creating their own music, springboarding from the music that they workshop in the term leading up to and at the MVIS concert. Now available on interactive whiteboards, so kids can click and drag sounds from nature or instruments and build their own soundscape. or extend it further with our Composer in the Classroom, which does what you describe above on a regular basis – including in your home town. Come and have a play, Sally!

    • says

      Mary Jo, I actually met with your Musica Viva education people already, last year. They said they couldn’t fit me into the 2013 Composer in the Classroom program…? Perhaps you could remind them of what I’m doing. I would dearly love to be working in that program!!

      • says

        Thx for your response Sally. If you would dearly love to be working in MVIS, why are you writing as it if doesn’t exist? As your response indicates, we are doing great work in the Composer in the Classroom program, not to mention the variety of activities reaching 300,000 Australian children each year. We are not alone, and others are also doing valuable work. As Lyn notes, we are lucky in this country to have some great work happening. I whole-heartedly support your comments that much more is needed, but I fear we won’t assist anyone’s case by pretending that nothing is happening now. Let’s work together by continuing to applaud the good work that is happening, seek recognition for the truly ground-breaking work going on, and seek to extend this activity so that every Australian child has access to music education as his/her right, not just their good fortune.

        • says

          I certainly didn’t mean to imply nothing else was going on at all, only that it is somehow compartmentalised, marginalised. Why is all this wonderful activity not part of our major arts festivals and why aren’t ALL performers somehow involved directly in creation as well as performance?

          I am now in negotiations with a couple universities to present residencies where I perform, create and workshop with all levels of music makers, young and old, pro and amateur an everyone in between, encouraging them all their communities to work together rather than separately. Are all the visiting Musica Viva ensembles directly working with communities? I’d love to be a fly on the wall in those workshops.

  6. says

    Sally has written a wonderful scenario that has all the elements of a perfect lesson plan. She knew just when to structure choices for the kids to make and when to engage them in free form thinking. She had them work from experience and she used what works for her as a professional as the basis of what could work with little kids. The results will just be more sophisticated. The lyrics were lovely thanks to the preliminary set up, and the chorale was a pleasure to listen to. This is indeed the essence of creative musicianship. By the way, in comparison to what is done in dance with choreography (see 92 nd st Y DEL tapes via vimeo) and theatre people do with improvisation (see Epic Theatre Ensembles work with high schoolers in NYC) and playwriting and poets do with various other prompts that poets have invented (see Teachers & Writers Collaborative) have the established classical musicians’ entities been too slow to grow beyond Orff and Kodaly into today’s world mediated by all the electronic tools available to us? If so, why? When not so, why? Those of us who work with the arts in educational settings want to hear more from musicians on this topic. This is the kind of scenario, by the way, that’s just as appropriate for high schoolers as primary schoolers. there should be a great exchange program between Canberra and NYC musicians who work with kids on composition and performance.

    • says

      Thank you so much for your words Carol. I am absolutely thrilled that you think it “has all the elements of a perfect lesson plan” because to be completely truthful with you, I haven’t the training to know anything about structures like that. One day I’m aiming to get around to studying such things properly and refining my structures. One day!

      Regarding your words on Orff and Kodaly, these are just different tools, are they not? I don’t know enough about either method to comment in any detail, but I imagine that in the hands of an imaginative creative educator, these tools would be just as useful as anything else. Electronic tools in music creation are likewise just as useful, but I feel it’s important that they’re employed in a way that continues to develop the child’s “inner ear” i.e. don’t rely on the computer to suggest a musical pattern. The pattern should come from the creator’s imagination and then can be recorded by whatever medium you like, whether it’s a computer, a recording device or my own personal favourite, good old fashioned pencil and paper.

      Also thanks for pointing me in the direction of those examples in theatre and dance. I feel that the classical music world drags behind in this regards, but am working on helping us to catch up!

      • says

        Thank you for your kind words! I hope that you come to NYC some day soon and we can talk over lunch and a glass of wine! Meanwhile, a few other thoughts: Orff and Kodaly are very useful methods but I fear that they have become somewhat static over the years except when in the hands of truly talented musicians like you! When I think of electronics, I no longer think of the computer but rather all the easy ways to get keyboards into classrooms and help with not only improvising and ear training but helping kids overcome the humps of learning to play well enough to give themselves and each other pleasure. I am not a fan of computer programs like Garage Band but I know there are other programs out there that help to unleash creative play with classical music conventions and also help with teaching music theory, the bane of my high school years. Oddly, I mentally invoke music theory a lot for some odd reason as I develop my critiques of curriculum in the arts.

    • says

      Or even a worldwide exchange. I think we’re only just becoming aware of the many people who are doing things like this. Would be wonderful to bring them together in some way, maybe online, but preferably in person. I wonder if there could be funding for a conference. But no — a festival. Conference is too limited, too airless a word for the joyful things we’re talking about.

      • says

        The trick would be to piggyback on an existing festival that would make room for the kind of sharing that you all are talking about. Then one could figure out the costs (which should be relatively modest other than attending the regular festival as a musician and hotel stuff. ) Getting a local foundation or one that supports festivals to help subsidize the specific costs related to the music education sharing needs to start at least a year in advance. So picking a festival a year in advance (Sante Fe? NY Jazz Festival? Marlboro Vt? Tanglewood? Caramoor?) should be relatively easy. Someone has to do the work, however. Ahhhh, there’s the rub!

  7. Lyn Williams says

    My sense is that we are lucky to have much similar activity in Australia and have had for many years. We must not forget the ground breaking work of Stephen Leek and then many others such as Paul Jarman and Dan Walker Along with many of these fine composers Sally has undertaken many such workshops with Gondwana Choirs as part of our regular program for many years

    • says

      Fantastic stuff! I’m really happy to have the opportunity to now spread the love further outside of the Gondwana Choirs family. Whilst we’re on the topic of sharing, also worthy of a shout out is Michelle Leonard’s Moorambilla Voices and Moorambilla Festival. She’s really doing something wonderful with lots of creatives out there in the bush

      The way forward now I think is to make creative workshops part of the brief for performers in major arts festivals. At the moment, there’s heaps going on in rather more marginalised settings. Wouldn’t it be great to see more of the big arts festivals and major organisations embracing this kind of work in a way that directly involves all their performers?

  8. says

    Some people have read this post of mine and think that I am implying that there’s zero going on in creative classical music education in Australia. NO, No, no, this isn’t what I meant at all! Rather that those engaged in giving the high-profile-subscription-series-festival-headliner type performances are often disconnected from these wonderful creative programs which are most often presented by other very talented people, rather than the aforementioned performers. (NB I’m talking about actual creative workshops here, not just performance masterclasses which heaps of classical performers will present but doesn’t create any new work).

    I consider myself very lucky to have had the opportunity to perform a high-profile headliner concert of world premiere works with renowned composer Philip Glass at Perth festival AND to give a composition workshop to a bunch of local teenagers where we created a brand new work. I wish I could share video of the results of that workshop, but unfortunately you can’t just go around putting up videos of kids without the appropriate permissions. Sorry!

    Anyway, the important thing to me about this opportunity was that not only did we create a performance piece of which the kids had some sense of ownership (their own original work! Omg!) but they also all came to the concert the following evening. One of the people they were looking at on stage that night (i.e. me) was the same person with whom they’d workshopped some original composition the previous afternoon. The notion that a real musician who performs a specialist repertoire at a very high standard on the concert platform is also a person that cares about what those teenagers create, was a friendly person, was capable of having fun playing silly games with kids and joining in with their laughter and creativity … well, this has got to be a powerful experience for a young person. Surely.

    This connection between worlds is what I am trying to get at. These performers getting their hands just a little dirty would be very powerful.

      • says

        Thank you Greg! And I do apologise if I was unclear in the original post. There’s heaps going on in music education downunder, but I do believe there is something of a sense of separation between the high profile performer world and the education world. I would love to see that gap close a little. Or a lot.