Sunday, August 15, 2010

Some Deep thinking about music and kids

Last Friday I attended the latest Canberra performance of the DeepBlue orchestra.

Emerging out of QUT's Creative Industries area, DeepBlue seeks to redefine the idea of "orchestra" for the contemporary world. Essentially a small string band with a rhythm section, mixing desk and multimedia backdrop, the group performs music ranging from "straight" classical (Barber's Adagio for Strings) through contemporary compositions by Australian composers and members of the orchestra, to arrangements of pop songs. The performances themselves are choreographed and full of energy, visual excitement and, overwhelmingly, just good fun.

DeepBlue is strikingly successful in breaking through the customs and desiccated conventions of traditional classical performance. I could - and probably will - write about just how important I think this is from a purely artistic perspective. However, what really interests me here is the way in which they have rethought the educational side of their engagement with the public.

DeepBlue makes a point of collaborating with the young musicians in each town they play, with their YoungBlue program. Previously, a school or youth music string group would prepare in advance and then join the orchestra on stage for one of the items. This is a clever engagement strategy, but not all that new an idea.

For this tour, DeepBlue are using a different strategy. ANY young string players in the towns being played can sign up for this experience. They download the score and an mp3 of the piece, practise on their own (DeepBlue performs from memory and encourages the kids to do so too) and then get together for a single rehearsal and workshop (essentially choreographic) on the afternoon of the concert.

Kids on stage in the Canberra concert
This is new. This is actually educationally ground-breaking. It's more like a flash mob than a rehearsal, and works in a really positive way. The whole sense of "drilling" that characterizes SO MUCH of children's musical experience is absent: there is no martinet school music teacher hectoring the children into a technically polished (as if that is ever achieved) but emotionally lifeless version of the music. Instead, the children have to take responsibility for their own preparation, and with that responsibility comes confidence, and a sense that they "own" their own performance.

You can HEAR this confidence in the results. You can see it in their eyes. And it beautifully parallels the way in which the DeepBlue adult performers come across as a groups of individual personalities and diverse talents rather than a sort of orchestral music-making machine.  Interestingly, it is the technology that makes it possible: to download the scores and mp3s into one's own home is hardly ground-breaking technology, but it is only really now that it is the sort of second-nature technology for enough parents that such a scheme as this would be viable.

I saw a great performance last Friday: fresh, human, and in-your-face emotional. I'm not sure I saw the future of the orchestra - maybe it has many futures, or more likely none. But I think I saw the future of music education.

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