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7 December 2014

Cool Music for Large Ensembles

Cool Music for Large Ensembles

Adam Starr writes about an inspiring collaboration between the Melbourne Polytechnic students and Victorian secondary school ensembles.

Q: What is the difference between a fortissimo marking under a C4 played by a flute in Sibelius and a professional flautist?
A: About 5 dynamic markings.

Music students have become accustomed to hearing their ideas fed back to them by virtual instruments in notation software, complete with approximations of changes in articulation, mutes and bowing. While this can be an empowering learning tool, virtual instruments are in many cases quite different from their living, breathing, acoustic counterpart.

'Arranging for Large Ensemble' is a third-year subject in the Bachelor of Music degree at Melbourne Polytechnic (formerly NMIT) that requires students to arrange an original composition of 3-4 minutes duration for a large ensemble. Students of composition and arranging need to hear their works being played if they are to develop, learning through trial and error. In 2012, I established a roster of schools for this assessment, so that students had the opportunity to attend rehearsals and make suggestions and revisions.

Cool Music for Large Ensembles is the outcome of a multi-layered, interdisciplinary collaboration that began in 2012, conducted in two phases. Phase one involved Melbourne Polytechnic student works being workshopped by secondary school ensembles from Victorian schools. Phase two brought staff and students from the Creative Arts degrees at the Melbourne Polytechnic Fairfield Campus together to produce a book of arrangements for large ensembles (big band, concert band and string orchestra), a resource to be made freely available to schools and institutions.

The production of the book started with eight student compositions that were performed, recorded, mixed and mastered by students and staff from both Music Performance and Sound Production. Art, design, photography, proofreading, copying, engraving and layout were subsequently completed by Writing and Illustration staff and students. Each composition was represented by both a lead-sheet and two pages from the score, in addition to information about the composition and the composer. Full scores, parts and mp3s are freely available online.

It was hoped that secondary-school musicians who participated in dialogue with their allotted composer might find the inspiration to listen more intently, concentrate and practice more intensely, and perhaps even compose and arrange music themselves. The response has proved to be positive: students liked the idea of having music written especially for their ensemble (however quirky the instrumentation). Additional benefits to students involved in this collaborative exchange included sight-reading practice and free access to contemporary Australian music.

The impact of the project has been more far-reaching than expected: in addition to hearing their works performed, Melbourne Polytechnic students have been offered teaching jobs, compositions have been performed at school concerts and speech nights, a student was engaged to teach on a school music camp, and, most recently, a student has been commissioned to write material for an ensemble at one of the schools involved, and numerous teaching placements have been successfully organised. Six more compositions (from 2013-14) have been produced and will be added to the website early in 2015. To date, over 70 student works have been workshopped.

Composer Adam Starr is lecturer of music at NMIT/Melbourne Polytechnic.


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