Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Music and the New Musicians

Eric's report from the Scottish conference:

Notes from the Music and the New Musicians Conference in Scotland
By Eric Booth

The conference was called Music and the New Musicians, funded by the Scottish Arts Council November 8-10 at the City Halls in Glasgow. The attendees were leaders in Scottish orchestra education and “outreach” efforts as well as well as those in similar situations in England and about ten other countries. The conference design put demonstrations at the center, with most of the talking head panels speaking mostly in response to the work we had seen. And we saw very significant work.

The work rates among the best I have ever seen. The role of the Animateur has never been so brilliantly demonstrated. The quality of the music learning in schools appeared repeatedly, providing a foundation and platform so high that the demonstrations achieved levels almost beyond imagining in the U.S. Indeed, upon reflection, that is what kept me so excited for my three days—I was witnessing work I had only imagined possible. Although I always voice and teach the possibility of high quality student composing, and prioritization of students’ intrinsic-motivation in the arts, I had never seen them as working norms, with special projects flying higher from there. The work expanded my sense of the possible, and the innate modesty of the Scots made it seem all the more glorious because they didn’t think what they shared was any big deal.

Following are the highlights of what had impact and lasting significance for me. It is a mishmash. My role was to give an opening keynote to spark the right energy for the gathering of 150 people, and a closing keynote that mirrored back what had been of significance. The attendees were mostly those involved in music outreach from Scottish and English orchestras, but there were colleagues in those positions from around Europe and some from Asia, and a few random additional attendees. One panel spoke of a revolution in the 1980s, when orchestras in the UK dramatically reconsidered their purpose and functioning. Many spoke of the time being ripe for a new revolution. I was deeply impressed by the accomplishments of their ‘80s revolution, and I did recognize and report a rare combination of forces lining up to advance Scotland’s orchestral outreach to new heights.

Three overall observations struck me repeatedly.
1) Everyone, player, administrators, educators, public advocates,
referred to the purpose, the very identity of their orchestras, as a community resource. It wasn’t just blather, it is the basis for their making choices about what the orchestra will do. Certainly this largely results from the fact that they receive much funding from the government. And it does not mean every musician is actively involved in outreach work, but it does mean that every musician believes in the fundamental importance and centrality of that work.
2) The musicians clearly loved the work with young people. There was
wholehearted participation in every moment, spontaneously applauding children who came up with good answers, playing passionately, clearly having great fun. They went out and talked with the kids on their own, before and after the performance. Players told me that unofficially players routinely bend union rules around outreach work, because they want to, and because its importance is understood and embraced.
3) The role of Animateur is well developed, widely respected and
appreciated. The three Animateurs I met were all musicians, working as freelancers, and were given wide creative latitude to design and lead the series they were assigned to. They think like American teaching artists; they lead workshops that are extremely like our professional development workshops, and they are really really good.

The Soundtown broadcast combined two projects. BBC Scotland places a radio studio in a different small town high school each year—Soundtown. They use it for a variety of purposes—from focus groups for political response to young people creating programming and getting excited about the technology. This day, from Kelso High School, Soundtown presented a live presentation of ten Kelso students with players from the BBC Scottish Symphony. The students and performers were live with us in a Glasgow performance hall, while a small group of students and faculty were back at the radio studio in Kelso to listen and respond live. The presentation was broadcast live to the nation, and It all worked very smoothly, including a surprise rap performance by one of the responding students about Soundtown in his school—it was beautiful to see how the teachers immediately warmed to the idea of a surprise rap performance, and how delighted they were with his gift.

The ten 13-15 year old students in Glasgow had worked with composer Alasdair Nicolson for three days, during which time with a quartet of BBC musicians was present the whole time to help the students try out their ideas. They used Nicolson’s approach to composing (see references at the end), which is well tried and effective. The resulting 2-4 minute compositions were stunningly successful. Ranging from a musical essay on procrastination to a haunting evocation of a childhood location, these were mature compositions, created in three days. The musicians were clearly thrilled to be part of it, and twice asked to perform a piece a second time because they hadn’t done it justice the first time. These were average music students, not prodigies nor those on a musical fast track—this work is within the three-day reach of a large percentage of Scottish high schoolers, and every piece was more sophisticated than any composition I had ever seen from American high school composition students.

That night we saw the world premier of Thrie Heids (three heads, three short pieces based on famous heads in history) composed and conducted by Animateur Stephen Deasley—it is musically thrilling half hour. Composed for an ensemble of eleven instruments and four electronic instruments that manipulated the instrument sounds, with Martin Parker doing a remarkable job designing the elegant electronic component. The sheer force of the sound and the beauty of the electronic elements was thrilling enough. However, the four electronic instruments were designed for and performed by four severely disabled young people with the ensemble—I must say in the ensemble because they were so fully participating. I had never witnessed the like of it—fine musicians from The Brewhouse, an new music ensemble, working as full equals with these four students and their school support team—fully embraced as well-rehearsed and relaxed partners. The instruments allowed them to make informed musical choices, to improvise within the structure, and to make excellent music. It was breathtaking to see them work so well within the ensemble and to be able to express themselves musically; to see the nods of recognition and collegiality move across the group and the students. And no one thought it was that big a deal. They were more excited about the beauty of the piece than the amazing inclusion of the young players. And interestingly, Deasley told me he purposely did not compose evident solos for the electronic instruments that would have enabled audiences to spot the young people in the lead and aesthetically isolate them from the fabric of the piece—he kept them as a part of the ensemble, which was the nature of the entire piece.

We also heard from Professor Nigel Hawthorne of Edinburgh Univ., who dedicates himself to creating new instruments for severely disabled people, including instruments that can be played by eye movements. That evening we saw a performance called The Four Seasons. This was a concert of 100 kids (to an audience of families, supporters and the public as well as our conference), 9 and 10 year olds, from two schools who put on a 30 minute piece of their response to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Piazzolla’s Four Seasons in Buenos Aires. This was the culmination of work with 12 musicians from the Scottish Ensemble several of whom worked closely with the students, and the ensemble played parts of the focal works on the program. The kids had choreographed dances to some of their own compositions and to Vivaldi and Piazzolla. The movement work was clearly their choreography, led by dance teaching artist Rosina Bonsu, and was highly expressive and wonderfully chaotic, but rich with their own ideas, filled with their metaphors of response to the music and movement ideas. They brought their individual styles to the dance—one girl who clearly takes ballet class managed to put splits, arabesques and posing into her moves as kids all around her were sliding into base, doing kid friendly smashing into one another in the spring section. There was so much buy in from the schools—the hall filled with family, and loud cheering for every teacher and every musician at the end. The students’ compositions and performances were far more controlled than the dance, and for general music students, rather than music-focused students (no traditional orchestral instruments among the students, just instruments anyone could play), they became effective as performers as well as composers. They even included some choreographed flair playing some of the percussion. The support from the schools was extraordinary. Two days before the performance a teaching artist told the principal her students weren’t going to be ready, asked and was given an entire day off from school with all the kids to rehearse. They believe in art making as serious learning.

The next morning, we saw a Royal Scottish Symphony Orchestra concert for 5 year olds that worked beautifully. It was cleverly shaped (by a freelance Animateur who had also been Animateur for The Four Seasons Project) Paul Rissman to keep them focused throughout Monster Music and to engage them where they were at. He also included a composition of his own, and the selections were fun, short, engaging and very alive. In the morning we experienced a 45 minute workshop for teachers that prepares them as partners for the Masterworks series of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, which we attended that afternoon. The teacher workshop was very like one in the U.S., but more sophisticated because this was designed for music teachers—but was active the entire time. Workshop leader (Animateur) Stephen Deasley had us composing and performing for one another in ensemble, solving complex challenges for the one hour concert we saw afternoon for 500 teenage music students. The two pieces that were the focus of the concert—James MacMillan’s The Exorcism of Rio Sumpul and John Adams The Chairman Dances—for those who don’t know these contemporary composers, the work is subtle and complex, not really melodic, and deals with political themes. Animateur Paul Rissmann created a speedy and interesting cool lecture format, very music-analytic, occasionally participatory, filled with useful visual elements that he had designed—and it worked, at least it did for me, opening the pieces for me to grasp them more fully. This concert was a kickoff for the students who were about to start a composing project using those two works as inspiration. The musical performances were first rate, by the way.

Late that night we listened to the music of the Fusion Project of the Glasgow City Halls, which is a performance and music study venue, but has an active education program. This is a small program for the most economically struggling kids in town, what Americans call “at-risk” youth. They have taken great care to create an environment that is youth friendly, driven entirely by the interests of the students, and putting technology at the center. Some students work on mixing, others on DJ-ing, some create electronic music, with Pete Dowling guiding but not teaching, and with peer mentors basically running the work with the students which is all peer-inquiry driven creating a tight group that becomes committed to their projects and the process. The results of the music at the evening party was a musically fun and proud mix that made for a great social event, that the kids basically shaped with their creations. Picture 150 adults drinking a lot of wine at a party the teenagers were delighted to musically guide, appropriately and with real flair. On the closing day, students greeted us in the hall with music—it was a statewide launch of a national music strategy. Even though the current state of music in Scottish schools is very high by international standards, a series of initiatives have come into play that may well launch the music learning of Scotland to international leadership. The first opportunity is a national dialogue led by the government around “cultural entitlement.” The nation is trying to determine what every Scottish resident can expect in terms of arts and culture. This debate is not received cynically, but rather is prompting government officials and members of the public to agree about long term spending and goals for the cultural life of the nation, institutionalizing universal access and greater equity.
Concurrently there is a national Creativity Agenda underway, to find ways the governmental, corporate, social and educational institutions can boost the presence and priority of creativity.

There is also a new national educational curriculum being designed, call the Curriculum for Excellence. Remarkably, it does not emphasize quantifiable measures of success as its goals, but rather prides itself on being learner-centric, with these four essential capacities as the goals of the curriculum: confident individuals, successful learners, responsible citizens, and effective contributors. Arts education supporters are only beginning to realize that these goals place them in a central position of schooling, more than they have ever been, with an emerging mandate for creativity across the curriculum. They are only just now beginning to come to grips with the possibilities this opens for them. Finally, the last day of our conference was the launch of their new National Youth Music Strategy which was presented with appropriate flair (the modest Scottish version of hoopla). Remarkably, it aspires to provide every Scottish student with: music-making experience, instructions that respects and supports their individual musical preferences (electric guitar is as respected as violin), access to high quality (physical and human) musical resources, instruction to develop their music-making to whatever level they aspire to go. It aspires to make both music-making and music-composing as essential learning components for every students.

The ceremony included performances by young people, including a brass band, a jazz band, a bagpipe ensemble, an all-white gospel choir, and one more group. This final group was introduced by the Culture Minister herself at the culminating moment. She is a rather prim, soft spoken older lady, and after her speech she cheerfully called forth the final musical offering, which was a punk rock band of four boys, who went full out with screaming and shouting, gyrating, well-grunged in outfit. The Minister tapped her toes happily through the loud raucous six minutes, and everyone was quite thrilled with them. All musics are equal. All music making is honored. All musicians and music teachers wish to contribute to the national goal.
The modest Scots were at pains to point out the ways in which they are less than ideal, the ways in which they have much to accomplish. Their partnering between orchestras and schools is not strong. Their education training for musicians is no stronger than in the U.S. Their pre-service training in the arts for emerging school teachers does not include much use of the arts, and their understanding of arts-integration is not advanced. Nonetheless, they are doing world-leadership quality work in many areas, and are committed to significant new achievement in the years immediately at hand.

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