Let’s Create – Not Replicate

This year, in our Captivate String Orchestra, we have achieved much in the performance of the Brandenburg Concerto # 3, 1st movement (abridged). This is a significant achievement for a combined string orchestra with mainly upper primary students that have mostly come out of the String Things Program in Catholic Schools; Western Sydney.

Here is just a short excerpt from that performance:

However, in this blog post, I would like to follow on from one of my previous posts on “Collaborative Learning in Music – Get With the Team”, in which I discuss the opportunities for collaborative learning in our ensembles and explore how we can extend the ensemble learning experience to music creation or composing and then for the ensemble to perform a collaborative arrangement or composition.

What triggered the idea for this post was a project that sort of generated itself. After we performed the Brandenburg at our Captivate ‘Best Of’ showcase, I was looking for an arrangement specifically for our Blacktown Captivate String Orchestra that we could perform at our St Finbar’s Strings Concert in November. I like to either find or arrange pieces that give students a new musical experience and teaches them something about that style/period/composer.

The questions this posed to me and that I wish to share here were:

How do we engage and involve students with composition/arranging and music creation within our ensembles?

and then leading on from that;

How do we shape our ensembles and rehearsals to make the musical arrangement a collaborative process?

and then an extension of that last question;

How can we use technology in our ensemble and music performance to better engage students in collaborative composing/arranging/performing?

I found an arrangement that I had previously published in a series for String Orchestra but when I played through it, was not happy with my original arrangement. This was an arrangement for String Orchestra of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Chanson Triste’ but was too simplistic and did not sufficiently highlight the evocative moods of Tchaikovsky’s masterful melody writing and colourful orchestral texture.

First, we played through the original arrangement as it was and without letting the students know that I was not happy with the arrangement that I had published 10 years previously, so as to give them an opportunity to freely voice their perspective. Some of the violins were confident enough to say that the chords on alternate beats were not exciting to play and did not fully convey the harmonic structure.

Incidentally – 2 students came up to me at the end of one of these rehearsals and asked to be able to learn much more about composition and to actively compose in the music classrooms back at school. (This orchestra consists of students from across several Catholic Primary and Secondary Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta) My response was to give them some modal scales to play on their violin at the end of the rehearsal and point them to Garageband on their iPads where they could layer their melodic ideas and experiment further.

We have 2 very confident (sometimes very confident to share their views) double bassists in the Blacktown Orchestra and their view was that the double basses should in fact play the opening melody. I thought this was a worthwhile experiment, so I took the score from that first play through and wrote the melody into the Double Bass and Cello parts. I then made the melody in the first 8 bars an optional cue and wrote some more rhythmic variation into the 2nd violin and viola parts. Click on the score and recording below to see the finished arrangement.

Unfortunately, this was not really a completely collaborative process but rather the arranger (me) taking on the feedback from students and giving them a voice in the arrangement. Next year, I am looking at the ways we can use embedded media such as QR codes on the music and interactive music software and/or a Wikispace to make the whole arranging/composition process a truly interactive, collaborative and engaging process for students in this ensemble – and by extension, show a new way of composing, arranging, performing and listening to and understanding music for students in our school music programs.

Around this time, I also listened to a wonderful piece by a friend of mine and renowned composer Racheal Cogan who resides in Calgary, Canada. Racheal is a wonderful performer on recorder and uses a range of recorders as sound sources. In this case, the piece Dreamscape, is not a collaboration with other composers but features Racheal’s innovative use of sound sources and the way she weaves the texture is very unique.

Have a listen to this wonderful piece Dreamscape:

And then be aware that the sounds you are hearing are mostly coming from these beautiful custom made recorders by Racheal’s friend Geri Bollinger in Switzerland. The playing techniques that Racheal uses is very distinctive and innovative:

“The percussion sounds are from the recorder. When you strike the holes/keys with the pads of your fingers it’s a very cool percussive sound – but it’s quite soft; in the recording environment it can be made loud and awesome. The bass-like sounds are also recorder percussion from a deep contrabass – pretty cool! These watery percussion sounds move seamlessly out of the real water sounds that surround us a few times in this piece.”

Racheal also uses technology in innovative ways in her composition that allows for greater experimentation and real time improvisation that builds up the composition in a very organic way. Ableton Live is the software of choice for Racheal, as it allows more experimentation and building up of the layers of the composition in real time.

It is this creative use of sound sources and technology that I would also like to convey to our students in our Captivate Ensembles. If we can find ways for students to collaborate and work together in the rehearsal as composers and creators of music as well as working together towards a successful performance then we will have true collaboration in the music learning. Further; if we can utilize technology in innovative ways to give students in the ensemble real time feedback on the musical arrangement or even with an original composition, then we will truly “Create – not Replicate”.

This post is really just an introduction to the ideas of effective collaboration and experimentation in real time collective arranging and composing in the ensemble. I’d like to continue to explore and share these ideas with you in 2016 and perhaps have a discussion in this forum with fellow educators. How do you encourage students to share ideas on arranging/composing/improvising in the ensemble structure? How do you make your ensemble a place for musical experimentation and exploration?

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About captivatestrings

Phil Rooke is a Teacher Educator, specializing in Music Education for the Catholic Education Office - Diocese of Parramatta, authoring & implementing teaching programs and leading music learning across a system of 78 schools in Western Sydney. "I am on a learning journey to find and invent better ways to motivate students and teachers in music making."
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