400 junior school kids in a vocal improv.....

A couple of weeks ago I gave a workshop in algorithmic composition to each class at Bronte Public. 

I've never taught that age-group of kids before, but I had Carly Orlander there to keep me grounded and help me with it, as well as help look out for the kids who may not take to the workshop easily.

I had a number of objectives with the workshops. They're centered around building imagination around sound creation (timbre, pitch, dynamic, envelope) and form (macro/micro phrasing, texture, arc etc) in relation to algorithmic composition (which, for me, is all about "if/when then" operatives, which can be simple or get incredibly complex) with acoustic realisation (voice, hands, tapping, movement, etc). I designed exercises for each age group, essentially to;

  • Encourage creative sound making through improvisation
  • Attach creating sound to movement parameters
  • Call and response
  • Sequencing 
  • Encouraging thinking about form/structure

I only had each class for 40 mins over the 4 days, then at the end there was a showing with the whole assembly and invited parents and all the teachers. 

So, I rocked in, first class was a young one, year 2 I think, and the exercises I thought were right for that age group were not at all... After some warm up "imitation" exercises and getting giggles, farts and burps out of our system, I tried to get 1 student to improvise movement whilst another improvised sound in response to that movement. I've seen this done really beautifully with adults, but the kids defaulted to things they've seen on youtube. I needed to change tact.

The following day I started each class by telling the students about John Cage's 4'33. Why would a composer write a whole work of silence? Some of the kids' responses were very astute. I'd then lead them to listening (in silence) for 20 seconds (a challenge for some), and then ask them to identify all the sounds they'd heard. I'd also introduce them to the idea of an anechoic chamber... and some students would really take to that concept.

We need more silence in our lives.

From listening we went to trying to vocally recreate the sounds we heard, then to improvising creative sound (which the whole group would imitate), then, depending on the age group, we'd get into more complex exercises.

My favourite was playing the whispers game; why it's called "Chinese Whispers" is beyond me, but that's what it is known as. Just getting them to do that, but then going from a phrase spoken in english to a phrase of improvised sound was really interesting.... then getting them to have "conversations without words" was Very popular. It was a challenge to stay sensible. 

One thing I realised was that many of the kids weren't ready to put movement and sound together... they needed structure to the exercises otherwise they'd explode in giggles and moves/sounds they've seen/heard on youtube. So I started limiting the movement/sound exercises to using the arms only, giving them little controls/parameters in which they can be creative. 

Many kids who were using movement to indicate the sound they wanted from the rest of the class couldn't resist getting everyone to SCREAM. I loved this. But the trick is to get them to scream in a controlled way - when the movement conductor closes their hands that means silence... so we need to respect them and stop screaming when they indicate. This was a challenge for some of the students, but after some practice they got it.

All this was rather delightful, by the end of the 4 days I was exhausted, but the full school assembly where we demonstrated what we'd done was really energising because of the kids' enthusiasm; they were having fun and being challenged.

I had 2 year 1 kids come on stage and have a conversation without words with me. Their nerves suddenly limited their "vocabulary" somewhat, but the experience of improvised performing (and of being respectful audience) was important here. The challenge of not being in a group and the spotlight being on individuals is one that has to be dealt with in this context, but it's even tougher when they're being asked to improvise in sound!

At one point I had an older group come up on stage, year 4/5 I think, and the class divided into two, each side had a conductor and they improvised call & response and counterpoint. This was perhaps the most advanced aspect of the exercises, and the group did very well.

I think the cutest part of the showing, though, was getting 2 kindy kids to lead the entire school in imitated creative sound. The school would listen so intently to hear what the sound was, and then copy it. The emotions I felt watching them do this was a very complex mixture of pride, adoration, amusement, joy... and telling them both how good they were afterwards - I could tell this was (at this time in their lives) a potentially pivotal moment for both of them. They were both totally shy kids but they broke through that shyness to present. 

During all the improv, though, what I found most interesting was when students ran out of ideas... and I pushed for more. The uncertain, vulnerable territory forced students to fire their imaginations and yielded creative (albeit sometimes timid) results... as it does with myself and when I'm working with other adults in workshops.

I want to do more teaching of improv and algorithmic composition methods with this age group - and with older groups. Ben Hinchley and I are designing a 2 day and 2 week workshop in algorithmic composition (as our capacity as our company Vordenker) for a number of age groups... so hopefully we'll be able to go beyond these rudiments and into notation (through traditional western music notation, graphic notation and cue sheets) and digital programming (using the slew of programming languages and softwares available to us today).

All these exercises I'm developing/setting have been drawn from my training as a composer but also recently my exploration in movement, improv, the last 4-5 years of data-responsive music making, and my own composition process.

I've been particularly inspired in this area of thinking by a few key people. Jim Coyle, my high school music/composition teacher, one day recommended that I just improvise a bit every day to improve my composition technique. Flash forward 6 years and I was having drunk vocal improvs at a bar in Circular Quay (the Paragon) with other composition students from the Sydney Con on Wednesdays. Being inspired during Judy Bailey's classes in improvisation at the Con (back in the day, playing improv oboe). A number of years later, improvising poses whilst being a life drawing model, and later improvising movement during dance classes at Strut... taking more classes involving improv and incorporating movement, sound and words, notably with Dean Walsh, Andrew Morrish, Bernadette Lewis, Sarah Dowling - all the while using improv as a core part of my composition technique. I've used improv, scored improv or algorithmic composition methods in collaborations with choreographer Dapheny Chen, composer/technologist Benjamin Hinchley, in the small gigs I've done with my partner Dean Walsh, and within a number of commissions over the years. It makes the collaborative process of creation egalitarian, exciting and filled with exquisite vulnerability, integrity.

Now when I'm creating a work it always starts with improv, and increasingly my work is beginning to always involve "scored improv" or "algorithmic improv" where certain parameters are known and others are responsive to the moment. 

It's one of many ways of approaching the creative process, and of approaching content for a finished composition/work, and one that I think that is at the very core of creativity yet wasn't encouraged as much it could have been through the various curriculums I'd been involved with over my life. I guess this is why I'm keen to teach it, because I want to give students opportunities to be inspired (and to inspire) that I'd liked to have had.... 

Andrew Batt-Rawden

Arts Illuminated Pty Ltd, Level 13, 167 Macquarie Street, Sydney, NSW 2000

Publisher and artist. I have a background in music composition, festival direction, media publishing, some uni teaching here and there as well as performance art. I make websites for various projects that I'm involved with.