All-in ensembles: a mix of instruments, a mix of ages, a mix of skill levels with everybody welcome to squeeze up together and join in. They may be a whole heap of fun to be part of, but how does it feel to be the person standing in the middle, holding every thing together?
CMVic’s recent music camp featured a wonderful wealth of workshops for instruments and singers of diverse experience and skill levels. The all in ensemble, led by Lyndal Chambers, gave everyone the opportunity to come together and make music en glorious masse.
Imagine being the facilitator. You’re stood among a squeeze of accordions, a swathe of strings, a blast of horns, a strum of ukuleles, and a chorus of voices, all keen, all excited to be a part of this amazing thing, this swelling of sound, all packed into a room with a fairly low ceiling, and all looking at you … Where do you start things off and how do you keep it all going?
Even with a proven track record as a highly experienced music leader, facilitator and teacher, Lyndal admits the prospect of leading the 2016 CMVic ensemble made her nervous.
“I was incredibly anxious about being able to meet everybody’s needs. Usually working with a group of kids or adults, working with a group of say 25, you’re reasonably able to suss out the room and observe who needs what. You can physically run around and see who needs a simple B-flat part or the harmony in C part or whatever…you get an idea of what people need to get the most out of the experience and can sit them next to a relevant support person, but I was aware during the preparation that with so many people (100+) in the ensemble there was no way I was going to be able to do that.”
All Lyndal’s preparation payed off, and the ensemble at camp went with a swing on Saturday when everyone was full of beans and last thing on Sunday, too, when Lyndal pulled a fantastic second session out of the bag to end things on a high note.
So what were the processes and strategies used by Lyndal to prepare for the diverse needs of an all in ensemble? Here she shares some of the pointers and tips she put into play for planning things out and staying on track:
First things first, find a tune; find a song
Lyndal used ‘Caderas’ (a traditional Balafon band tune) and ‘Coffee Love’, a song by Leanne Murphy and Frank Prem in four parts which worked for the singers and across the ranges of the instrument families too.
“People played Coffee Love really well; you could hear all the quiet instruments, which was really great. And Caderas is a great tune… the accordions can play it, the horns can play it, and the strings can play it.”
Draw on your resources and be prepared to learn too
“Preparing for the ensemble, one really big piece of learning I had was about the overlap between singing groups and instrumental groups. The decision to use Coffee Love out of the new song book (Sing It) came to me like a bolt out of the blue, having sung it while recording for the book. I could apply the same process to learning Coffee Love as I would use with a singing group. Sing the part over and over and then apply that part to an instrumental group. This makes it a lot quicker for people to learn their part and it makes the transition to playing that part on an instrument easier having sung it through, so many times.”
Have section leaders in place
Having section leaders in place when leading a large group works well. “All of the weekend’s workshop leaders were sitting in the ensemble as well as all of the CMVic regulars and leaders who also understand the importance of listening and looking out for the people sitting around them. Seeing some people do this automatically in the ensemble was a great relief.”
Keep things simple
In addressing the diversity of skill level and experience in a large group, Lyndal recommends the key to success is in keeping things simple.
“Think about how simple you think it should be and then go one step simpler.”
Solos and Extensions
“Leave room for solos and extensions so the competent musicians aren’t left wondering at what point you’re going to move off three notes and are given opportunities, too.”
Provide a tune that has easy access
Coffee Love has two chords so Lyndal took her partner Strat’s ukulele and learnt those two chords from scratch. The process of doing this made her think that anyone else trying something for the first time would be able to join in with at least one chord or note of the tune. Lyndal also set the tempo and created a groove using clapping and dancing before starting on teaching the tune.
“I feel dancing is like singing. Everyone can do it and you can do it as much or as little as you like. It’s a real mixed ability thing.”
Keep the faith!
How do you stay focused and keep everything together leading a group that size and diverse?
“At no point did I feel I had to pull the whole thing back. I just felt really optimistic. You have to have faith in the group and remember that they’re going to be forgiving. If you have to stop to collect your thoughts, do it.”
Some good tips to remember are:
- Have faith in the group: they will be forgiving.
- If you have to think on your feet, that’s okay!
- Be mindful of the fact that everyone in the room is barracking for you and again, it will be okay!
- You will get to where you want to go and the group will cooperate and help you to get there.
Once everyone’s cracked the tune, extend the musical experience.
In the lead up to the weekend, Lyndal spent time considering the elements of music: tempo, rhythm, dynamics, pitch and timbre and how these could be explored in the context of the workshop, including:
- Being heard
- Being able to do a solo
- Being able to improvise
- Playing softly
- Playing slowly at times
“This was particularly helpful in the second session on Sunday because by then everyone knew the tunes and I was wondering how we could vary things and make it more musical.”
I threw it over to the group to answer these questions but at the back of my mind, I had those elements to fall back on to make it more interesting, more satisfying and to extend people’s musical experience.
Leading a large group of varied skill and experience levels makes you draw on your resources as a leader, whatever those are. In the preparation stages Lyndal drew on her expertise and experience in terms of how complicated to make the music and considering what the instruments were capable of doing. In the actual leading of the session she was thinking about ways to make things more satisfying and more musical, but as she says, there are different approaches to take and outcomes and direction will vary between leaders:
“I don’t think necessarily that you have to have the full palette of musical elements. My palette is just my palette, other people will have a full palette that’s a different palette.”
And so I think it’s about tapping into the people you’re working with. They bring skills and they bring cooperation.
Listen to the whole sound and listen to the needs of people who will let you know if things aren’t clear to them! For example, if the ukuleles can’t hear themselves or if somebody is confused by a chord, they’ll generally ask you.”
How does it sound? Take a listen here! And, above all, remember to enjoy the experience.
Article written by Deb Carveth with Lyndal Chambers
Sound recording by Stuart Ashburner at the CMVic Music Camp 2016, reproduced here with permission from Leanne Murphy and Frank Prem