littlecolourfulteacher

littlecolourfulteacher

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changing of the torch

January 27, 2019

I have recently come back from directing the Young Composer School at Gondwana Voices National Choral School, a role that I have relished as it combined the paradox of creativity with the responsibility of quality choral education.

Creatives who are choral composers are always asked to straddle the line between imaginative possibility and what choirs are able to do for them. Write a work that is too specialised, and only the very best choirs with well-developed technical ability can perform them. Write a work that is too juvenile and simple, and choirs will find it unsatisfying on both counts. Even more than for instrumental writing, choral composition requires the composer to write as both a creative and an educator. 

Write a piece that resonates with choristers of a certain age-bracket and ability, enhances their vocal development, and expands their performance confidence + sound, and you will have a sustainable and well-loved piece of repertoire which has the power to affect choristers long after the final performance of the piece.

And this is where I find complete joy; trying to find that sweet spot. I write like an educator, always looking for words that will stick, and what feels good on the voice, and how to create a choral framework whereby a developing choir will feel and sound good performing my pieces. I also seek to extend and develop quality vocal technique but in the “Mary-Poppins-spoon-full-of-sugar” kind of way, through embedding choral technique in a way that it is unnoticed until you have reaped the rewards of it through rehearsing and performing an engaging piece of music.

And this is what I have spent that last week mentoring and teaching to the young composers at Gondwana NCS.

I had an incredibly nostalgic realisation during the choral school; that when I was 25 years old, someone took a chance on me as a young composer. That someone was the artistic director of Sydney Children’s Choir, Lyn Williams, who saw something worth developing in my writing and in my love of choral education. Now, at age 37, I realise that my time for looking for mentors is being overlapped by actually doing the mentoring myself. Rather than cold-calling for mentorship, I am now cold-calling to mentor. When I see that spark of determination, uniqueness of voice, a love of the voice, dedication to developing as a composer, resiliency, and a talent that resonates with my own creative values, it is my job and privilege to offer to nurture that talent.

And so I did this. There were two stand-out composers in my small group of 7, and I wrote emails acknowledging the manner with which they embraced the composing school, their quality of work, and their ability to collaborate in a healthy and productive way whilst still maintaining their creative voice.

It’s now my responsibility to look for places where I can shine the torch on the brilliant and innovative young talent coming through. And what an honour to look at things so differently, whilst still having the chance to work as a creative myself.

It feels enlightening to be holding the torch and illuminating the journey from the other side!

thoughts for 2019 no 4: the future path

December 28, 2018

I love what I do, and annoyingly so. And while full-time high school classroom music teaching is bad-assery at its finest, it is also all-consuming. Too easily, music teachers can get onto the endless treadmill of ideas, classroom preparation, paperwork, or even the very positive aspects such as dreaming up large-scale, creative, artistic ventures which completely swallow them up, mind, body, and soul.

Of all the breeds of teachers, performing arts teachers unequivocally SUCK THE MOST at having any sort of balance in their lives. A performing arts teacher who has a healthy work-life balance absolutely all the time is not a true-blooded performing arts teacher, or is delusional.

So now, in this pocket of calm and rest while I have the attention span and energy, I am taking a closer look at the undercurrents of new ideas and change bubbling away below the surface. I know that right now, I am totally in the right place of life and work, happy to invest of my ideas and skills, building a foundation of music education in my school.

But I don’t want to wake up at 50 having merrily gone along with this life without consciously choosing it for myself. I’d like to know that if I hit 50 and I’m still in full-time teaching, it’s because I chose it for myself in a wholehearted and considered manner. The unusual caveat for me is that I genuinely love what I am doing. It is gruelling, soul-immersing, all-consuming, unforgiving work, where you experience such extraordinary positives, but also feel like you’ve sold your spleen in a jar. But I don’t want to blithely arrive at 50, 60, or retirement age by accident, even if I am happy as Larry.

So, thinking ahead…

Love what I do, but look up. It’s okay that I’m completely, sickeningly in love with music teaching right now, but it’s not okay that I allow it to consume me. When I prioritise one extra lesson plan or choral commission over my friends or family, even if the latter can be considerably more work (yes, I said it!), I am being swallowed up. I need to remember I am so many different facets and attributes as a person, and it would be heartbreaking to arrive at the end of my life and all that people could say was that I was good teacher, even if I was. I want to be so much more than that. Even if it frustrates the crap out of my sometimes, and I can’t Sibelius-it down, or put it in tidy little learning plan or Excel spreadsheet. I need a whole other life outside of my work. Refreshingly, life seems to assert itself and remind me of this in no uncertain terms.

Let the edges blur. Over the last year, I have been making a conscious effort to consider things which I think are on the edge of my expertise. These can be leading workshops which are outside of my main areas of choral + composition, going on excursions which having nothing to do with performing arts, saying yes to my god-girlies when they ask me to do something which isn’t my usual “thing”, and saying yes to interesting + engaging events, social opportunities, family gatherings, outings, and adventures. In getting out of my comfort zone and allowing the edges to blur on what I think is an appropriate way for me to use my time, especially when there is very little of it during a school term, I am testing out new personas and ideals which might lead me to new understandings and experiences. In allowing the edges to blur, I am exercising the ability to engage with something which I’m not fully confident in, learn to adapt, and tap into my curiosity in a safe and playful way. Most importantly, I am taking down the walls of my little pigeonhole where I have comfortably placed myself, and where it is so easy to live from on a day-to-day basis. It takes so much more energy to engage with new things, but I owe it to myself not to cover myself with defining labels. I get so indignant when others pigeonhole me…and yet, what am I doing on a daily basis to stretch their understanding of who I am, personally and professionally? It’s my responsibility too.

Wonder and question. There is such an immediacy and excitement to asking questions in a field where you know very little. Whether it’s cooking or car-maintenance, large-scale or seemingly trivial, engaging with others and their passions and strengths is an untold joy, rich with personal learning. The thing is, sometimes I am so consumed by my own deadlines and activities that I forget to engage. I’d like to remind myself that no-one, not even the most self-sufficient person, can fully engage and inspire themselves. As a human, our minds and hearts are made for connection, laughter, curiosity, learning, and love. So let me take the extra few minutes to engage with something or someone that I know very little about, and might spark a new course of thinking.

Stomach-flips and uncertainty. Yes, my teaching life is comfortable. Exhausting, interesting, but totally comfortable. Yet I look back to all the times I have grown significantly in confidence, leadership, or grit, or produced a work of significant creative light or merit, and it has ALWAYS been through adversity and struggle. It’s because when we’re comfortable, we do the same thing, because it works. When we are in struggle and facing uncertainty, we know that we need to adapt and grow to fit the changing requirements. Does it feel good? Hell no! It sucks. NOBODY ever looked at a period of personal, financial, creative, or professional struggle and said at the time, “Oh, GOODY! A struggle! AWESOME!” But whenever I look at the significant growth milestones, they are always centred around those times where I have been forced to create new understandings. So why on earth would I wait for adversity to learn something so vital? Why not look for opportunities to take those stomach-flipping leaps of faith while I am healthy and settled?

Catch the keystones. In being happily ensconced in my work, I have very little motivation to question the path I’m on. But I’d like to ask myself to notice the moments when I am doing something new and I find myself totally in the zone, totally “in flow”, the doing something which is the perfect balance of challenging, interesting, engaging, and allowing me to create gritty forward momentum. And then catch that keystone and don’t let go. Make the unexpected connections, say yes to the slightly left-of-the-middle ideas, consider things I wouldn’t normally consider, engage in the interesting conversations, and keep asking myself questions. What else could I possibly imagine myself doing, or want the responsibility of doing, and when? Once I catch these ideas, then it’s much easier to create a timeline to build up momentum for when I would like to make a change.

Side hustle. Mine is so accidental, it’s laughable, but my side hustle has always been writing and composing. I am the definition of a reluctant composer. I write because I love writing, and people like what I write so they keep asking me for more. Have I EVER put the right amount of weight, attention and time on this side-gig? My God, no. Embarrassingly so. And yet, choral directors and choirs from all around the world hunt me down and ask me for my music. For this, I have to do a shout-out to all the incredible people I have worked with in Sydney Children’s Choir, Gondwana Voices, Birralee Voices, and Young Adelaide Voices for fuelling the fire and sharing my music, and my work, so warmly and openly. To each of these extraordinary people, I am indebted. But I take care of my composing as well as I take care of a cactus. And I’ve killed a cactus before…! So let me take this honour of being able to compose and write, and my absolute love of choral composition for children’s and youth choirs, and hold it with greater love and responsibility. Look into taking care of it as I would an extra part of myself, a thread and possible next pathway in my life, rather than just a hobby. While I love the freedom of writing and composing purely as a creative outlet, it’s a conversation with myself I’d like to engage in more, and in a more supported and responsible way. Choral directors + choristers have entrusted me with their ideals, let me practise my voice in composing more regularly.

So there it is. Tiny signposts, significant value. Let me begin imagining a future with purpose and consideration, whilst fully engaging with all that I have right now.

the wotltatti 2018 exhibition + MOD centre choral commission….ahhhhhhhh!

December 10, 2017

The building site, according to Google Maps. 

I’ve been commissioned by UniSA to compose the opening ceremony work for the WOLTATTI 2018 Exhibition + the official launch of the MOD Centre; the University of South Australia’s Health + Innovation building. I’m writing for a 1000-voice choir + instrumental, and it’s all incredibly exciting, nerve-wracking, and extraordinary.

But I really didn’t have a full concept of the scope of the project until this week when I drove past the building site of the MOD Centre on my way toCelebration Night rehearsals, then realised WHAT I was driving past.

O.M.G. Can you get starstruck by a building?!

That’s what I’m writing the opening credits for!

Went past it again today on my way into town. WAHHHHHH!

Better make it good.

Artist’s interpretation of the finished shiny thing. WOWEE. 

choral commission: waging peace 1000-voice choir

July 15, 2017

I have been commissioned to compose a choral work for the 2nd MOD Exhibition for WOLTATTI 2018, which will premiere during September 2018 to January 2019. The piece will be for a 1000+ voice choir made up of all ages and ability levels, all socio-economic backgrounds, and is a connecting point and representation of the diversity of our community.

Here is the summary of the project:

The second MOD exhibition,  WAGING PEACE, will invite visitors to consider the role of machines and technology in creating peaceful futures. visitors will be taken on a thought-provoking journey that will explore what peace means and look at ways that ware and conflict can be invested to find alternative drivers of peace. The exhibition will examine the role defence plays in creating safe societies, the ethics of war and violence, as well as opportunities for peaceful engagement and community building. WAGING PEACE will also ask students and artists to challenge the role of machines in waging war by responding with their own machines for peace as a means to inspire change for the future. 

“War appears to be as old as mankind, but peace is a modern invention.” [Sir Henry Maine]

I’m just starting to think in all directions about the project and how I might incorporate different layers of sounds, and different vocal abilities to represent connection, how we all fit together in a community, and how the sum of all the parts is far greater than a solo voice, as powerful as that may be. That a solo voice CAN start the ripple effect for peace.

I’m so thrilled to be part of a project that resonates with me, and that I’m excited and challenged to think about!

Here is my rough, first draft of the lyrics, hand-written + freshly typed up!

WAGING PEACE: “Dreaming of a Peace Unknown”

Who are we without song?

Song of life? Connecting point?

Dance of energy and light.

Who are we without creative forces connecting us?

Connecting points guiding us

Into the humanness of falling and being?

We are living dancing souls

Constantly challenging perceptions

Constantly changing directions

Of how we think and grow

We must live completely

 

We have the life force in our hands, and it can go any way we choose

Why not the way of peace?

Does it have to be a declaration of cleverness, spite, or ingenuity?

Do we have to create waves that do not serve our hearts?

Why can’t we take it all down, take away the words, the shards, the pulses of pain

And just be, simple and sacred in our truth?

Some other place and time?

Using the mind to inspire, not inflict pain

War appears as old as mankind,

Struggle is the defining lifeblood of us,

But peace?

Is as old as we know, and a new invention.

A new creation

What we imagine cannot come into being without quiet strength

True strength is gentle

What is innovation and creativity without humanity?

And shouldn’t everything start with the most personal of persons?

What is art without a soul behind it?

What is song without a lifeline dancing?

We can make whatever we want…why not quiet?

Why not peace?

Why not deep connected peace, in love and quiet courage?

What not peace?

Let it be peace.

seen completely: choral composition

April 20, 2017

Last year, I had the great honour + delight of writing for the Hillcrest Christian College’s choir, conducted by the fabulous Jenny Moon, who works choral wonders! 🙂 They commissioned me to write a modern reworking of Psalm 139 for their senior SATB choir. These are the very first set of words I wrote, unpolished, and unedited. When I read them, I can see my train of thought and I love the incomplete rawness and unfinished beauty of them.

You see me completely for all that I am

You walk beside me in repose

You hold the hand of my heart and I the other

You know my travels, my will, my peace, my fire

My thoughts flowing forth

And you carry me still

You love me still

There are days I wish to walk alone

Selfishly, independently

Believing myself to be free

But is there anything more free than your love?

And still you walk with me, without judgement

No matter the turn of light, the colour of my heart

You are the same

You see all, there is nowhere I can hide

Not even in my darkness

Not even in my light

You see me for all that I am

And it is so

There is no freedom more free

Or more beautiful

Than to be seen completely

the creative process

April 23, 2016 1 Comment

notthecreativeprocess

It’s always the same, that stunned, irrational feeling that overwhelms me when I begin a new composition.

Now clearly, I love composing, because I keep going back for more, and I keep saying “yes” to choral commissions. And there are moments of pure synergy where I don’t even know where the notes come from, and how the words connect with their final sounds.

But the thought that reverberates in my head EVERY SINGLE TIME I start writing?

How did I ever do this?! How did I EVER write what came before this one?!

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What came before seems…extraordinary. Insurmountable. Unmatchable. Unfathomable. That SO MANY PLANETS lined up all at once for the sake of that particular choral composition. And I listen to my past compositions, head propped in my arms, with my stomach doing flips at my current commissions.

And I actually LOVE the creative process. I love the uncertainty, and I love getting down on my hands and knees, up to my elbows in notes and ideas, sounds and nuances, phrases and colourful snippets of harmony…I love playing in the puzzle pieces.

But the start is torturous, even for a realistic optimist like me.

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So this is how it goes. I sit at my piano, blank manuscript pad propped up on the music stand, in a fierce face-off. It’s a desolate wasteland. Nothing works. Every possible harmony or phrase I test out, I have already heard before. I’m surrounded by half chewed-up musical ideas, and metaphorical tumbleweed.

Then I play with words…sounds of words, lyrics, ideas put together in different combinations. It’s just as agonising.

Eventually, I conclude that I have just have to make a haphazard, totally rubbish start. I pull up a Word document, vomit every conceivable idea onto the page, and press save without a backward glance. I do the same with my ideas at the piano onto my phone, and the manuscript onto Sibelius.

I press save in the hope that, like good wine, it improves with time and being left alone in a dark place. Sadly, it never does. But my eyes + mind see different things, and my ears hear what I couldn’t hear previously.

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A tiny snippet of an idea arrives; a shy little phrase, an errant, unexpected harmony that I fall in love with.

Suddenly, I have a little row of seedling musical ideas, then I find myself in the middle of a garden of sounds, pruning + shaping entire pages of my composition, encouraging a particular phrase one way, cutting back one to its core in the next. I am engrossed. I don’t look up, and an hour passes easily. More and more notes fall into place, and I start to embody the personality of the piece, and choir who will be singing it. Nuances are being discovered, and shaped.

Then there is the day, some time later, when I stand up, dazed from the intense work, stretch my weary arms + shoulders, and find that I have a Piece of Music, a Brand New Composition…a Living Entity.

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I know every sound + word in that piece. I know its spirit.

I take a breath…because now, in all its perfect completeness, having it loved it so intimately + knowing its every colour…I have to let it go.

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It’s an extraordinary process.

ballad of 16…the sound….

Conductor: Christie Anderson

Pianist: Karl Geiger

Choir: Young Adelaide Voice First Concert Choir

Performance: September 2012

May 9, 2015

ballad of 16

May 9, 2015

a98dda0d35491660af60daec30a959c9This piece was composed with the Young Adelaide Voices First Concert Choir of 2011. Together, we explored our 3-year-old, 6-year-old, 9-year-old, 11-year-old, 13-year-old, and 16-year-old selves. We shared disgusting stories, poignant memories, tender + beautiful pockets of time, and cringe-worth moments. We laughed until our bellies hurt at all the ridiculous things we said, or did, in our great wisdom at each of those milestones. And then came the words for “Ballad of 16,” and I knew I had something special. Words which resonated with fragility and strength, beauty and hope. Enough learning and life-experience to grow, but not so many knocks as to render us hopeless.

Here are the lyrics to the piece we created together…

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Ballad of 16

see me

do you see who I see?

perfectly composed and written, perfectly scored?

 

and do you see me, and hear me, brand new

many incarnations of the “me” in front of you?

I’m so different yet so much the same

do you recognise me, and not just by name?

though I may be older, and wiser

I’m changing every day

 

still so much to wonder

still so much to say

 

skating through life, sometimes bruising

having it all, sometimes losing

taking it back, piece by piece

hold responsibility

everything new and surprising

with every move, spirit rising

know all of me

learn to love

 

and do you see me, and hear me, brand new

many incarnations of the “me” in front of you?

I’m so different yet so much the same

do you recognise me, and not just by name?

though I may be older, and wiser

I’m changing every day

 

every day

I see I’m growing every day

I see that I am beautiful

I can recognise my own spirit

my heart is the one and the same.

 

a snippet of the score…

Ballad 16

a little journey into bossa…

April 19, 2015

Romance 1I took a little journey into The Land of Bossa Nova…in the most delightful way! I was invited to arrange the poignant and tender “My Romance”, by Richard Rogers + Lorenz Hart, for Chanterelle, Walford’s senior vocal ensemble, directed by the wonderful Trish Hart.

Romance 2

This arrangement was discovery and distress, wonder and weariness, creative collaboration and creative collision all at once.

And I loved it!

Romance 3

My first foray into arranging in this genre; every turn a new question, every bar in the score a new discovery to be made…and that pure journey of exploration and discovery has been truly exhilarating. Chords and voicings which sounded appalling to start with and confirmed my total “non-jazzness” transformed and blossomed, becoming warm and resonant with sound and some semblance of style. I felt like I was on a musical trail of discovery…slightly daunting, but so invigorating to find a solution to a harmonisation, a comping pattern, or to finally hear, through my headphones, realised on Sibelius, the sounds I imagined in my head.

Of all the arrangements I’ve done to date, this has been the scariest, the coolest, the “funnest”, the most daring…

I can’t wait to hear Chanterelle work their magic on it!

Romance 4

And to be able to arrange one of my favourite charts…even more special.

Thank you!

a hundred and one strokes…daring to be creative…

March 12, 2015

hope-through-creation-nhowellLast year, I wandered through 33 art galleries in Seoul, Tokyo, London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Hungary, Munich, Milan, Florence, Rome, Barcelona, Madrid and Lisbon…each so different, breath-taking and thought-provoking.

So much life in each piece of artwork!

There were stories of whimsy, hums of contentment, joyful illuminations, crystalline clarity, rich old-worldliness, history, upon ache, upon time, upon suffering, upon space…every emotion was evoked as I wandered through the wonderful, enveloping calm that is an art gallery.

I can’t do this during normal teaching life! Yet here…it was so normal to wander through colour in parallel with my thoughts…and often with snippets of a composition being unconsciously inspired.

There was the gift of space and time to get to the heart of a thought or idea during these delicious wanderings…!

Hundreds and thousands of strokes and gestures, hundreds of re-paints, hundreds of changing, shimmering thoughts…heartaches and agonies I stood at the edge of and was asked to consider. Pure rage and harsh truth…all through the voice of the artist. They never once complained…all these strokes…they had just the same amount of time every day as I do right now.

What a blessing it is to have a voice, to be able to write, to compose + to shape a melody.

Each time I am afraid as to whether my idea will come to life, let me keep loving, shaping and practising my craft, as each of these artists did.

They gave voice to their most beautiful and creative selves…if I don’t have the courage to do that, I am not sharing all of my voice and all of my heart.