When you are running a music ensemble in a school and playing music that is already fixed and composed and where there are parts printed out and not many people turn up and you get frustrated because your orchestra/big band/choir is not working, what do you do? Do you battle on without flutes or altos or rhythm section? Or do you stop the group and give up making ensemble music? Or do you try something else completely?
At Torquay Girls Grammar School (TGGS) we are running an experiment to run a band for anyone, whatever experience they have and on whatever instrument they want to play. So far we have a group of about fifteen to twenty year nine girls who come along every Wednesday lunchtime for about 55 minutes. They play a range of instruments, which we have divided into an ensemble of 4 sections, untuned percussion (mainly drums), tuned percussion (glockenspiels and xylophones), keyboards and strings (so far with a harp, a violin, a guitar and a ukulele). Only about a quarter have instrumental lessons and would consider themselves to be musicians. We have named ourselves ‘The Lightbulbs’ and begun to compose our own music. After three sessions, a series of original musical and narrative ideas are emerging.
The Lighbulbs are motivated to come each week, and we are starting to have discussions about why this is the case. I have explained that unlike a regular orchestra it doesn’t matter what the line-up is, and if students want to change instruments that is ok, and if one week some people are missing, similarly, this is not a disaster. We also talk about how we have differing instrumental and listening abilities, but when we listen to the music we are making we realise that it can work as a coherent whole. At the end of the third session I asked the girls to write down on a post-it note what their thoughts were about ‘The Lightbulbs’ and here is their list.
People can just play along with what sounds right,
Playing, (and a picture of a little heart)
We have a wide range of instruments,
I like how we come up with our own music,
I like it how it builds up to get louder,
I like the variety of instruments in our band,
It’s really creative and no idea is a bad idea,
I like squirrels and chestnuts, (two of the sections in our developing piece)
I like that everyone’s really friendly and work well together,
I like the variety of instruments and sounds of each group and the different sections,
I love the lovely atmosphere and people, (and a picture of a lightbulb)
I like how many different kinds of instruments that are in the lightbulbs,
I like how the lighbulbs work so well together and able to adapt to work together,
I like the atmosphere.
These comments are really positive and make both me and the class music teacher at TGGS, Naomi Shaddick, excited about the future of both ‘The Lightbulbs’ and this model of playing together.
This is part of my BSO Music Associate work and is funded with money from Torbay Music Hub as part of their new ensembles project.
LIGHTBULBS following session
I began the session asking the group what they wanted to do today. Initially I got silence and surprised looks, but gradually three answers emerged. It felt as if I was being provocative in starting the ‘Lightbulbs’ lunchtime band with this question, and of course it was, in the best sense of the ‘provocative’ word. We make music collaboratively and we find out what it is that we need collaboratively. It is not so unusual.
The three answers were:
- To make a new section for the piece,
- To make some more lyrics,
- To rehearse the section we created 2 weeks earlier entitled ‘Wind.’
I wrote these three answers up on the board and then after a couple of warm-up games and a little chat about the purpose of warm-up games, and me reading them my blog post from the previous week we got on with our agenda. We achieved all of it and more.
The band is getting smaller each week, but that is perhaps to be expected. The music teacher commented that we were down to a normal lunchtime band size now! The group that now regularly comes (and there were ten yesterday) are learning to create together and how to make interesting new music with a range of differing instrumental skills. We discussed how this particular band does not require people to be there every week and when they are missing we find new ways to make music. One percussionist revealed that in one section of the music she relied on her partner to play a part which she then imitated. Her partner was away yesterday and so she asked what she should do? I asked the rest of the group to answer this question, and another band member said ‘just do what you like!’ In this way the band is acknowledging that music can be made in many different ways and we are not all following a fixed historical agenda of what a band is and how one should operate.
We also chatted about the fact that we may make something up in two seeks time (our last session preceding a little sharing/performance) and then immediately perform it and that music is not only good when it has been rehearsed over and over, but the immediacy of new music can also be exciting and have real value.
‘Lightbulbs’ only has six sessions in total planned, and it is now (after four) that we are just starting to understand one another. I think that if we existed for six months we could really have a musical and social impact on the members of the group, their friends and colleagues, the staff and any potential audiences.