Our first Spitalfields Music Trainee Music Leader, Alice Phelps, has been continuing to gather experience working with a range of orchestras through Orchestras Live projects. Here she reflects on the final stages of her involvement in our Encountering Wordsworth project in Cumbria, and the creative challenges posed by music-making in lockdown...
It is quite hard to believe it but I am coming to the end of my year as the first Orchestras Live Music Leader Trainee. It has been eventful, challenging, exciting, and has not ended in quite the manner we intended! However, it takes more than a global pandemic to stop an Orchestras Live project in its tracks, so I have been able to continue my involvement with the workshops, albeit in a remote and online capacity.
In my last blog post I mentioned my final project, Encountering Wordsworth, only fleetingly. It rolled out over such a long time and combines so many elements, I felt it warranted an entire entry to do it justice. This article does a great job of outlining the nature and progress of the project, leaving me free to dive straight into my personal experience of supporting the young composers’ workshops, which were just one aspect of this epic undertaking.
I first began Encountering Wordsworth on a cold and blustery Sunday just before Christmas, in a primary school classroom in Beetham, Cumbria. I met with composer Laura Bowler, Manchester Camerata players Amina (flute) and Naomi (French horn) and Yvonne Hulme and Sarah Barkway from Cumbria Music Service. We were joined by a small group of young Cumbria composers (I’ll call them YCs for short from now on) aged between 15 and 18. I was immediately struck by Laura’s vibrant personality and sense of fun, and by Amina and Naomi’s warmth and relaxed confidence as facilitators. Joining the group as a supporting musician felt like being welcomed into a party, a great energy was established between the creative team from the get-go.
The day began with plenty of warm up games and activities, breaking down inhibitions while encouraging the YCs to communicate and work as an ensemble. A long-term project like this offers the luxury of time, and it is difficult to overstate the benefits of giving plenty of that time over to such activities, exploring and gently developing the group’s musical skills and setting the tone for the day ahead. In terms of setting up a workshop environment that was fun and creatively enabling, I couldn’t fault it - Laura absolutely nailed it!
Laura divided the group of YCs into pairs and trios, and assigned a facilitator to each small group. She handed out copies of Wordsworth’s ‘Duddon Sonnets’ and images of the countryside that had inspired them. Each group then devised a melody on a keyboard to short sections of the text. It became clear that as a group the YCs were quite reticent, but had a degree of musical facility. Initially, the pair I worked with needed some creative coaxing, but once we’d got the compositional ball rolling they were confident enough to make some decisive musical choices. Laura then encouraged the groups to extend their ideas, incrementally adding accompaniments, counter melodies and exploring other compositional devices (augmentation, sequences etc). I really appreciated Laura’s pacing of this activity, never overwhelming the YCs, and allowing for differentiation between the groups.
In the afternoon we listened to each group’s creations, delighting in their variety and originality, and began to arrange them using the instruments we and the YCs had to hand. I was aware that at this point a significant amount of creative input was coming from the facilitators, rather than the YCs themselves, but we made an effort to offer clear choices to ensure they remained connected to and invested in the compositional material.
This project was distinct in that we had a high ratio of facilitators to participants. During the workshops I was aware that as a group of extroverted and energetic music leaders we were sometimes at risk of overwhelming the YCs, who on the whole were quite an introverted bunch. However, a conversation with facilitator James Redwood back at the end of January offered a different perspective. He suggested that perhaps we were actually providing an engaging and spirited environment within which the group could absorb the creative energy and steadily build their own confidence as musicians/composers. I think in reality both scenarios were true at different points during the project.
I next linked up with the Encountering Wordsworth team in mid January for a residential weekend at the beautiful Bendrigg Lodge in Cumbria – a fitting setting to explore and develop their Wordsworth-inspired material. There is something about an overnight stay which adds a new dimension of connection and excitement to a project, a real opportunity for the group to relax and bond with each other. I arrived late on the Saturday evening after the YCs had already enjoyed a full day working with Manchester Camerata and sound artist Dan Fox, just in time to join the group in an informal session with Laura Goad from Cumbria Development Education Centre, who encouraged them to engage critically and philosophically with some of Wordsworth’s most famous lines - “To what extent can a cloud actually be lonely?”. It was lovely to see the group being so much more discursive and imaginative, and I think they really benefitted from approaching Wordsworth’s work from this different perspective.
The workshops the next day began with a generous dose of energising warm ups to try and rouse the sleepy teenagers (and, quite frankly, me) from their (our) morning torpor. Laura then handed out another of Wordsworth’s poems and encouraged the group to engage with it rhythmically. As in the December workshops we split the YCs into duos/trios, and Amina, Naomi, Laura and I assisted each group in devising a short percussion composition based on words and phrases they had connected with from the poem. Laura then helped the group combine their material into an imposing and effective passage of music, which would eventually form the opening bars to the final orchestral piece, to be performed by Manchester Camerata in Ambleside church next year.
The afternoon workshops were perhaps the most memorable and moving experiences of my entire year as a trainee music leader. Pupils from the nearby Sandgate school arrived with their families and joined our group for a few hours of songs, games, and jamming. The students from Sandgate, who all have profound and multiple learning difficulties, were an absolute joy to work with, and I was really pleased to see how the YCs took the situation in their stride, playing and communicating with the Sandgate pupils and their families with confidence and sensitivity. The success of this exchange can be attributed in large part to Annie Ruscillo, the school’s music therapist, who spoke frankly and helpfully to the YCs the night before, explaining what they might expect from her pupils and how they could most appropriately interact with them. After an intense weekend of compositional development, rounding off the weekend with joyful and spontaneous music-making was a delightful change of pace and mindset, and everyone drove away quite tired, but with huge smiles on their faces.
In March, the progression of Encountering Wordsworth, like everything else in the world, was somewhat disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Much has been written about the impact of the crisis on the arts, and arts education, so I don’t intend to add my voice to that chorus. Instead I want to celebrate the ingenuity and adaptability of Orchestras Live, and everyone involved in this project, enabling it to continue with integrity. I attended my first (of many) Zoom workshops hosted by Laura, and was impressed with how she conducted the session. She managed to balance being playful and productive, and made use of Zoom features such as breakout rooms and screen sharing, which broke up the sessions nicely. I wager that many more workshops will be conducted online in the future, so it has been invaluable experience watching Laura and the Camerata players navigate this new medium so expertly.
Laura used the Zoom meetings primarily to set the YC some compositional tasks, which they peer reviewed in the following sessions, and to share the progress of the final orchestral piece comprising all the material devised during the workshops. The group then had an opportunity to feedback on the composition and make suggestions, ensuring the material didn’t stray too far from their creative ownership. It was fascinating to hear the music the YCs had created being turned into a beautiful and complex orchestral work, as Laura had managed to retain the essence of their material and elevate it into something really substantial and exciting. The group loves what Laura has created, but I don’t think the magnitude of it will hit them fully until they hear it being played by Manchester Camerata, rather than through Sibelius over Zoom! Encountering Wordsworth has necessarily been postponed, but we hope it will draw to its rightful conclusion next Spring, with a live performance combining all of the different projects in Ambleside Church.
I have been thinking back on my year with Orchestras Live, feeling very fortunate to have racked up such a wealth of experiences. Before my traineeship I didn’t know that projects such as these existed, and taking part in them has given me a vision of what is possible and a clear goal to aspire to as a music leader. We don’t yet know what collaborative music-making is going to look like once the current situation resolves, but I do know that my work with Orchestras Live will stand me in the best possible stead for whatever the future holds.
This traineeship forms part of our commitment to supporting the development of diversity in the talent pipeline for the sector. By basing our trainee in the North of England, we aim to increase the pool of creative leadership expertise available to work with orchestras in the region.