Playing Together: creative music-making in large groups

Why Playing Together?

Research tells us that communal music-making has long been an important part of human life, and that bringing communities together is an important function of music.  Opportunities to play together lend purpose to our music making – we’re doing it not just for ourselves, but in order to meet and engage with others involved in similar musical activity.  When we observe and talk to young people taking part in large-scale musical events and performances, it is very clear that they derive a strong sense of enjoyment and achievement which in turn motivates them to continue their learning. Through these activities they can develop discipline, teamwork, cooperation, self-confidence and a sense of identity.

These are important reasons why we should provide opportunities to play in ensembles and to perform from an early stage. Playing with others is an important part of musical learning.  Children can learn playing techniques by watching and listening to each other, and they can develop the important musical skills of listening and responding to each other, playing in time and in tune.   

Inclusion: performance opportunities for all.

An important principle of music education is that every child has the ability to make music to a high degree of competence.   In the past, public and large-scale musical performances have often been limited to children who are perceived as talented – those who passed the audition for the choir or orchestra – while others were thought not capable of contributing to any worthwhile public performance.  The activities presented here enable us to challenge that practice, and show that it is possible for ALL children to come together and create music that is accomplished, vibrant and enjoyable to listen to, and that they can do so even in the early stages of learning.  This toolkit is intended to help you design your own opportunities for children to make music together in what will be referred to as Playing Together Events.

Models

A Playing Together Event could take various forms.  It could be based in a single school, where it might involve any of the following:

  •      pupils learning a particular instrument (e.g. violin)
  •      pupils learning a chosen combination of instruments (e.g. flute & clarinet)
  •      pupils learning any instrument 

Working across different schools can also be extremely valuable, adding an extra dimension to a Playing Together project.  Any of the above instrumental combinations would work equally well with groups of pupils from different schools.  Cross-phase projects, involving children from primary and secondary schools playing together, also have a valuable role to play in enhancing children’s learning.

Performance events can sometimes intrude on a programme of learning, to the extent that teaching can be virtually suspended while children spend their lessons rehearsing a narrow range of pieces for the performance.  In general, it is preferable that performance events make as few demands on teaching time as possible.  Instead, they can draw on the skills and repertoire that are already part of children's current teaching and learning programme.

One way of avoiding using up too much of the regular lesson time is to set aside a specific time for preparation.  For instance, a Playing Together Day could consist of a morning where children learn the pieces followed by a rehearsal and performance in the afternoon.  To do this, you need to be sure that your pieces are not too difficult to learn in the time available (see next section, Model 2).

Another way of avoiding extensive preparation is to include some improvisation in the performance.  This means that children only need to know the parameters for their improvisations, and these can relate to things they are already learning (e.g. the notes of a scale, slurring, tonguing, staccato, tenuto).  As well as helping children to develop confidence in their creative ability, improvisation can add a touch of excitement to a performance.

Musical content

When considering the musical content of a performance, one of the main considerations is to keep things simple.  It is often tempting to try to get children to play something at the top end of their range, but sometimes this can lead to children making mistakes in performance or feeling that the music is too difficult for them.  In both cases, they will suffer discouragement and disappointment.   Simple musical devices can be extremely effective – as composers from Bach and Mozart to Satie and Steve Reich have shown.

When directing or conducting the music, it is important to keep the directions as clear and as simple as possible, so that children can follow you from wherever they are sitting.  You may need to invent your own signals to suit the music you are playing – any signal will do, as long as everyone understands what it means.

The documents below give further advice on how to prepare for and organise a large-scale performance event. Please click on the titles to view or download.

PREPARING FOR APLAYING TOGETHER EVENT

ORGANISING THE PERFORMANCE

Musical Activities:

D for Drone


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