The Influence of African Musicians on Classical Music

Western classical music, by its very definition, is rooted in the sacred and secular traditions of the western world, centred around Europe. Although the genre has been influenced throughout history by folk song, jazz and music from other continents such as America and China, it rarely diverges far from its Western identity.

Much like Western music outside the ‘classical’ box, African music is incredibly diverse, varying greatly by region. There is lots of opportunity for creative inspiration.

In his 2006 book, Listening to Artifacts: Music Culture in Ancient Israel/Palestine, Theodore Burgh suggests that classical music ultimately has its roots in North Africa, in the art music of Ancient Egypt, as well as other ancient cultures such as Greece. However, there seems, at first glance, little evidence of African influence in classical music. When it is found, for example in Tippett’s A Child of Our Time, it is generally Afro-American in origin, interpreted in a western-dominated form of music.

When explored, the contribution of black composers and musicians, and the influence of African music, forms a fascinating part of classical music history.

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges

Probably the first and perhaps best-known classical composer of African descent, Saint-Georges was the illegitimate son of a Guadeloupe plantation owner, Bologne de Saint-Georges, and his mistress, an African slave girl of probable Senegalese birth called Nanon.

A contemporary of Mozart, Saint-Georges was barred from sharing his father’s French noble status because he was black, but his father ensured he was educated as an aristocrat. He studied fencing with a famous swordsman, becoming a champion fencer. He learned harpsichord, and he studied violin with one of the famous French virtuosi, Jean-Marie Leclair the Elder. His success both as a musician and athlete made him famous, but while religious leaders were agitating for an end to slavery, interracial marriages were still forbidden, and his skin colour built him an ambivalent status in society.

Although close to Queen Marie Antoinette, Saint-Georges was refused the prestigious post of director of the Paris Opéra, for which he was considered in 1775, because two of the company’s leading sopranos objected and successfully petitioned the Queen against his appointment on the ground of his race. Even so, he was a major star in Paris in the 1770s, nicknamed “Le Mozart Noir” on concert posters, often sharing equal billing with Mozart.

The later part of Saint-Georges’ life was disrupted by the French Revolution. Although he had been active in campaigning against slavery and sympathised with the democratic aims of the revolution, his aristocratic background meant he was not trusted.

He continued performing and directing up to his death, and he was remained famous enough to attract large crowds. However, living alone, he contracted a bladder infection and died on June 10, 1799.

Commemorative editions of his music were published, but within a short time, new restrictions on blacks came into force across France and its empire. Slavery had been abolished in 1794, but was re-imposed by Napoleon Bonaparte. Under Bonaparte’s regime, Saint-George and his music were removed from orchestra repertoires, wiping him from the history books for nearly 200 years.

His profile has risen in recent years thanks to concerts by ensembles including the Orchestra Of The Age Of Enlightenment, but he has not yet regained the equal footing he held with Mozart among classical music fans.

Embracing Ideas in the Romantic Period and Beyond

Towards the end of the 19th century, composers were looking towards different cultures for inspiration. Antonín Dvořák’s interest in themes from the ‘new world’ is well documented. His move to New York brought him directly into contact with Afro-American music.

In fact, Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, From the New World, written in 1893, contains some of the most famous examples of Afro-American themes in classical music. But Dvořák’s themes are not actually of Afro-American origin. The composer wrote accurate imitations of the pentatonic melodies, a technique which he also used in his American string quartet.

Interestingly, these compositions were pretty much contemporaneous with an emerging style of music in North America called ragtime.

Ragtime descended from the jigs and marching music played by African American bands, referred to as “jig piano” or “piano thumping”. Rags by Scott Joplin such as The Entertainer and Maple Leaf Rag are still instantly recognisable, and Ragtime had a lasting influence on classical composers. Igor Stravinsky wrote a solo piano work called Piano-Rag-Music, while ragtime is evident in the works of Erik Satie, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud and the other members of The Group of Six in Paris.

In 1930, William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony marked the first symphony by an African-American man. The work marries conventional classical forms with popular African styles, also referencing the blues. The bass line of the final movement moves from an F to a D-flat, resembling Dvořák’s New World Symphony.

The following epigraph, from African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1896 work, Ode to Ethiopia, appears with the fourth movement:

Be proud, my Race, in mind and soul,

Thy name is writ on Glory’s scroll

In characters of fire.

High ‘mid the clouds of Fame’s bright sky,

Thy banner’s blazoned folds now fly,

And truth shall lift them higher.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

The composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) is considered to be the only black composer to have broken through from the Romantic era. Born to a Sierra Leonean father, Coleridge-Taylor was from Holborn, London. He incorporated black traditional music with classical music, with such compositions as African Suite, African Romances and Twenty Four Negro Melodies. The first performance of his work, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, was described by the principal of the Royal College of Music as, “One of the most remarkable events in modern English musical history.” Despite this success, Coleridge-Taylor’s music is out of fashion and all-but out of print.

Accepted to the Royal College of Music aged 15, despite concerns about his skin colour, he swapped violin studies for composition. His tutor was Charles Villiers Stanford. Stanford challenged his student to write a clarinet quintet without showing the influence of his favourite composer, Brahms. Coleridge-Taylor wrote the piece, and when this work was revived in 1973, the New York Times critic called it, “Something of an eye opener…an assured piece of writing in the post-Romantic tradition…sweetly melodic.”

Despite little modern recognition, his influence lives on: From 1903 to his death in 1912, he was professor of composition at the Trinity College of Music in London. However, violinist Philippe Graffin performed the violin concerto at the Proms in 2005, and the Nash Ensemble have recorded the composer’s piano quintet.

Modern Times

Modern classical music has been more influenced by African culture. John Cage’s 1940 work, Bacchanale was the first significant modern synthesis of African and Western music. It was also instrumental in the development of the prepared piano, as the composer sought out African sounds with only room on stage for a grand piano.

Other composers such as George Crumb, Ligeti and Steve Reich have explored African influences, while composers born in Africa include Nigerian composer Joshua Uzoigwe. A member of the Igbo ethnic group, many of Uzoigwe’s works draw on the traditional music of his people.

Classical music is far from reaching the limits of inspiration from African music, and it is far from incorporating the work of black composers on a level playing field. However, for centuries, composers and the curiosity of the creative mind have shown us that the more the classical music world stretches its knowledge beyond the boundaries of its own traditional culture, the more unique voices will be found.


If you would like to speak to the Music Workshop Company about booking a workshop inspired by African music, contact us today:

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Drums of the World

It’s International Drum Month, and to celebrate, the MWC team have been exploring the world of drums – and the drums of the World.

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of types of drum. They differ in sound, playing technique and materials, but also in their cultural and musical significance. Some drums have developed for dancing or performance music, others are vehicles for group experiences, meditative, celebratory and even military use.

What is a drum?

800px-Velociraptor-by-Salvatore-Rabito-AlcónA drum is a member of the percussion family of instruments. It is classed as a membranophone, which is a great word that sounds like a species of dinosaur!

What it actually means is that a drum consists of a membrane or skin stretched over a shell or vessel.

Drums can be made from anything – wood, metal, ceramic, plastic or even plants such as gourds. Junk percussion has become popular too, with instruments made from discarded and recycled materials. Sound is produced by hitting the membrane either with the hands, or with beaters or drumsticks.

Most drums are classified as non-tuned percussion. This means they are of indefinite pitch, they don’t play any particular notes. But some drums are tuned to definite pitches. Orchestral kettledrums, (timpani) are always scored to have specific notes, and Indian tabla drums are not just tuned, they play different pitches depending on the technique used to strike them. As the sound decays, the player applies pressure with the heel of the hand, which changes the pitch.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAWhen the tabla is practised as a solo instrument it will not necessarily be tuned, but when used as an accompanying instrument it will be tuned to specific notes, normally the first note of the octave, known as sadja or sa in Indian music (the tonic). The range of notes is fairly limited, so depending on the key of the music, the drum may be tuned to the fifth (pa) or fourth (ma).

The drum is tuned using wooden pegs called gattas. These are used to increase and decrease the tension of the skin. Pulling the gattas down increases the pitch as the skin becomes tighter, just like winding up a violin string will make its pitch higher. Pulling them up decreases the pitch. This mechanism is common in tuned drums – orchestral kettledrums have a modernised but similar system.

I do love the tabla. It’s so resonant it’s almost vocal, and the Tintal rhythm patterns add hypnotic energy to Indian music. I can’t get enough! Matthew Forbes, Cellist, Composer and Workshop Leader

Drums are found throughout the world and in all world music. Africa, Latin America, Asia and Europe all have their own drum music, and each has a huge variety of percussion instruments.

Early evidence of drums include an image of a man-sized bass drum on a Sumerian vase which dates from around 3000 years BCE, and at least four sizes of drums were used in ancient Mesopotamia. Instruments from Ancient Egypt dating to around 1800 BCE have been discovered, and drums are mentioned in one of the earliest Chinese poems dating from 1135 BCE.

Drums seem to have reached Europe during the Crusading Era in the 12th century, where often they were played with a stick in one hand while the musician played a small pipe at the same time. This combination was often used for accompanying dance. Much more significant to the orchestral world was the arrival of the Arabian naker or naqqarah in the 13th Century, a small kettledrum, a modern version of which is now found in most symphony orchestras.

When most of us think of drums, the first thing that springs to mind is the drum kit (or drum set, as the American’s call it). A typical drum kit includes a snare drum, tom-toms, bass drum and cymbals such as hi-hat and ride. No pop or rock band is complete without one.

Check out this video to find out about the history of the modern drum kit…

Drums are played in so many other musical groups too. Brazilian samba is music for dancing, played in ensembles of many percussion instruments. Samba is an energetic music that immediately creates a positive, carnival atmosphere, and it’s a great way in to ensemble playing. It’s also a proactive way to start a workshop with participants who may not be confident instrumentalists. MWC Workshop Leader Chris Woodham says,

The starting point with all of my workshops, composition or otherwise, is drumming. That’s the way in, and the way into the students understanding that I’m an expert. It’s accessible; everybody can hold a drumstick; and I’ve found that it’s a great way to get everybody involved and working towards the same goal.

Read more about Samba music in our post, The Samba Workshop – How it Works.

For MWC Founder, Maria, the drum is the perfect instrument.

They are fabulous. It’s easy to get a sound from a drum, but extremely difficult to become a real drummer, whether you’re playing drum kit, djembes or tabla. Playing drums is very physical. It’s a great feeling to feel the vibrations of a drum passing through your body. I really enjoy playing djembes as part of a drumming circle. The energy and intricate rhythms are so powerful.

HHCMF14s-34The djembe is an interesting hand-drum from West Africa. The drum was used by storytellers and healers, as well as for ceremonial occasions. It is interesting to note that the power of musical vibration was considered significant for much more than entertainment purposes in so many ancient cultures – a holistic view that is once again becoming integrated into our awareness. You can read much more about the djembe and the benefits of drumming in our African drumming blog.

If you would like to find out more about drums and drumming, or to book one of our workshops in African Drumming, Samba, Junk Percussion or other drumming techniques, please contact us. We’d love to hear from you!

Body Percussion – You Make the Music

Body percussion is a brilliant way to warm up for a music workshop, and a useful tool for creating music in a group. It is incredibly accessible; the human body is an instrument every participant possesses. It is also valuable for internalising fundamental musical concepts including rhythm, beat and tempo.

I love Body Percussion because it’s a high energy, very accessible art-form. Seeing the amazing ideas that workshop participants come up with is brilliant, as is the reaction when they see what is possible when making beats on your body!

Ollie Tunmer, Body Percussion specialist and MWC Workshop Leader

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As a group warm-up activity, body percussion stimulates circulation and creates an energy in which it is impossible to feel self-conscious. As a musicianship tool, it provides strategies to equip students with a collective sense of pulse, memory for different rhythms and the opportunity to full engage with the musical material.

In composition it provides an inspiring way to explore sound, rhythm and the physical relationship with music.

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It is also an engaging way to explore the music of World cultures. The folk traditions of many countries include the use of body percussion. The Juba, or hambone dance from West Africa became a traditional dance among African-American slaves in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Slaves were forbidden from owning rhythm instruments for fear of secret codes hidden in the drumming. Instead they created music using body percussion, stamping the feet, slapping and patting the arms, legs, chest, and cheeks. This percussive dance, originally known as “Pattin’ Juba,” would be used to keep time for other dances. Steps had incredibly descriptive names such as “Yaller Cat,” “Pigeon Wing” and “Blow That Candle Out.”

Other traditions that use body percussion include the palmas, or intricate hand claps in Spanish Flamenco music, tap dancing and Ethiopian armpit music.

Body percussion works on the same basis as any percussion instrument, but uses the body to create the different vibrations and sounds. These can include:

  • Stamping the feet on the floor
  • Patting the thighs with open palms
  • Clicking the fingers
  • Clapping the hands
  • Patting or knocking the chest
  • Slapping the cheeks with an open mouth
  • Clicking the tongue

Inhaling and exhaling air, and various vocal noises including grunting and whistling can add to the repertoire of tones, and sounds can be adapted to create different effects. For example, clapping the hands in different positions will change the pitch and resonance.

Body percussion can be performed solo, but it is exhilarating as an ensemble activity, both to performers and audience members. The well-known percussion group Stomp use a combination of non-traditional, junk percussion instruments and body percussion in their performances.

Body percussion has many possibilities. It can be adapted for any age and ability. It can be introduced into a diverse range of workshops, from African Drumming or African Songs, to Composition workshops. It can be used as a warm-up, an icebreaker or a full workshop.

You can use existing games and ideas or create your own.

Watch composer Steve Reich Steve Reich explain his piece Clapping Music, and the inspiration behind it.

Here are some simple ideas from the Music Workshop Company to get you started.

Warm up

This can be done seated or standing.

Start with a copying activity. Start with four beats to establish a beat. Clap a rhythm that fits into a four – beat bar. Keeping to time the group should repeat the rhythm.

Gradually make the rhythms more complex. If the group doesn’t quite catch one of the rhythms, repeat it once or twice. Don’t comment on whether the repetition was correct or not, just repeat it.

Keep talking and instructions to a minimum, but make eye contact with every member of the group.

Start to add other body sounds; knee slap, click, stamp, chest…

Vary the dynamics, but keep the pulse the same throughout.

This warm-up can be developed by getting participants to create their own rhythms for everyone to copy. Either ask for volunteers or working round the group.

Body percussion

Vocal activity

Try making up a call and response vocal activity using speech and percussive vocal sounds.

Participants can take it in turn to lead this game, and it can be varied using different tempi and dynamics, or by adding more physical sounds such as stamping the feet and clapping hands.

Body Percussion Patterns

Begin to build up a body percussion piece by setting up an eight beat pattern, such as this:

Feet       Feet

Leg        Leg

Belly     Belly

Clap

This can be developed in a number of ways, for example as an ensemble piece using similar ideas to Reich’s Clapping Piece.

Watch some body percussion performers and use your imagination to create your own rhythms, sounds and games. You can even develop ways to notate your piece, deciding on symbols for each sound and rhythmic pattern, and finding creative ways to write them down in your group.


Contact the Music Workshop Company to book your Body Percussion Workshop and begin your exploration of musical possibility!

A Year in Music Education

The Music Workshop Company has had a positive and exciting time in 2014. We’ve worked with participants we’d not met before, designed brand new workshops, revisited some of our previous clients and thoroughly enjoyed facilitating a whole bunch of creativity and music making.Family

Much of the recent emphasis on music and music education in the media falls on the lack of funding faced by professional musicians and music educators, and the failure to make space in the curriculum for this valuable educational area. MWC is passionate about music education, and determined to have a positive impact through music workshops.

In order to give a sense of exactly what the Music Workshop Company is about, we’ve put together a round-up of some of our 2014 highlights: Our year in music education.

We got off to a flying start in January with a Rock School Workshop at Thomas Deacon School where we’ve worked before, and our first visit to Clarendon Fan Court Preparatory School for a Composition “Rock ‘n’ Roll” workshop.

“I was really pleased with the way the workshop leader got the children working as an ensemble from the start. Even as a whole year group, it made them focus on working together for the rest of the day. The material and songs chosen to demonstrate the points the workshop leader was making was relevant to the children, and he made sure everyone was included and involved at every stage of the day. I would most definitely recommend The Music Workshop Company to colleagues.” Claremont Fan Court Prep, Esher, Surrey, January 2014

We also had the opportunity to work with Ealing Mencap Group.

“The musician (Sarah) was very organised, well prepared, and had a very pleasant manner which our young people with learning disabilities seemed to appreciate. She was able to engage some people who find this very difficult and ran the session to meet their varying needs. I was impressed with her.” Kathryn White, Ealing Mencap, January 2014

photo-15In February, we enjoyed meeting past, present and future clients at the Rhinegold Music Education Expo at the Barbican. You can read all about the Expo in our blog post. We’ll be there again in March 2015 and look forward to seeing you if you can make it.

Our projects for March included a Music Composition project based on “Differences” at Milton Court Primary School.

“The children were thoroughly engaged in the workshops …a fun day was had by all … overall a very enjoyable experience.” J Pearn, Milton Court Primary, Sittingbourne, March 2014

We also led our first Community Orchestra project with Yardarm Folk Orchestra & Sussex Orchestra.

“The experience was seamless from the start and the workshop itself was brilliant. The Music Workshop Company immediately understood our problems at our initial enquiry … booking the workshop was simple and everything ran like clockwork. The workshop identified and dealt with the main problems which are faced by the two orchestras that participated. The pace and style of presentation were very appropriate and they were delivered in a capable and confident manner which held everyone’s attention throughout. This is definitely the most valuable activity that our orchestra has done since its formation.” Malcolm (Yardarm) and Eileen (Sussex) Orchestras, Benfleet, Essex, March 2014

Also in March we had our first of two visits to one of our longest standing clients, Newstead Wood School, with a West African Drumming Workshop. African Drumming is one of our most popular workshops for both adults and children, and it brings a surprising number of benefits. Read about the impact of drumming on confidence and well-being in our blog post.

In April, we got involved in the ISM’s Protect Music Campaign, and had a brilliant time at Clarendon Ongoing Opportunities, a group we have been working with for several years.

“High levels of engagement and listening with a group involving some with severe learning disabilities, young people were given ownership and variety” Thomas Hillman, Clarendon Ongoing Opportunities, April 2014

In May we visited our good friends at the Harpenden Gateway Club. We have run workshops for the group since 2007!

Harpenden Gateway Mencap May 2014 025-300x225“Thank you so much for your wonderful music workshop at Gateway last week.   Our members thoroughly enjoy your visits, as indeed the turnout that evening showed!” Natalie Chaston, Harpenden Gateway, May 2014

We returned to Newstead Wood School in June for their annual Composition Workshop leading to a performance at their school concert. You can read about this project in more depth here.

We also had a fabulous time at Story Wood School with a Samba Workshop.

“Enjoyed the range of instruments and putting them together as a Samba band- it sounded great! Very positive and enjoyable!” Rachel Marsh, Story Wood School, June 2014

Then we had another amazing day with West Mercia Brownies. It was great to be invited back!

July was a busy month with school workshops, holiday club projects and a corporate project, including a fun day at the Oak Tree Centre in the Lightmoor Village Centre for the Bournville Village Trust working with participants from aged 3 to 13.

photo-14During the school holiday in August, we spent a hot, sunny day in Fairlands Valley Park, Stevenage taking part in a music day. We worked with participants of all ages in our family workshops.

And as the new school year began we worked with children and parents at Lostock Gralam Church of England School, to write a new school song, which you can listen to on our audio page.

“A very enjoyable experience for both adults and children in school. The finale where we shared the song was fantastic!” Lostock Gralam Church of England School, September 2014

We got more great feedback from one our October workshops:

“The children were introduced to new instruments and had the chance to play them…. All the children enjoyed the interactive style of the workshop.” Laura Burton, Moseley Church of England School, October 2014

And in the October half-term, we were lucky enough to spend a day at the Elgar Birthplace Museum working with families to create new pieces of music. It was a real privilege for the workshop leaders to work in the home of one of England’s greatest composers, and the workshop was brilliant fun. The pieces we created there are also available to listen to on our audio page.

“A big thank you for the lovely event you ran last week.” Lily Dean, Elgar Birthplace Museum, October 2014 

Body percussionIn November we visited Wyvil Primary School to celebrate their Latin American Day, and as the end of term approaches we have a whole host of workshops to look forward to, and plenty of creative ideas for next year.

Thank you to all our clients and participants for making 2014 a truly memorable year.

We are always open to receiving last-minute enquiries if we are available to run a workshop for you, and we are taking bookings for the New Year. Contact us to arrange your custom-built workshop today. We are looking forward to making music with you!

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

As Christmas approaches, there’s always a race for the number-one spot in the charts. This year the Music Workshop Company team have been discussing their favourite seasonal music and have come up with their own top songs. Here’s a little bit about each of the team and their Christmas choices.

Maria Thomas is the Artistic Director and Founder of The Music Workshop Company. She specialises in Early Years, Creativity workshops and World Percussion workshops.

“My favourite is the 1961 song Christmas Time in London Town (words by Frederik Van Pallandt, music by David Flatau).

It was a favourite at my Mum’s school and I love the imagery in the words. It reminds me of trips to London as a child to choose a present in Hamley’s!

I also love the Calypso Carol/O Now Carry Me to Bethlehem, which is another favourite from childhood. I love the Calypso rhythm.”

Matthew Forbes is a cellist who also plays piano, mouth organ, kazoo, djembe, guitar, and mandolin…. And is a composer! Matthew leads workshops on Composition, Song Writing, Indian Music, African Drumming and Ceilidh.

“Easy. It’s Fairytale of New York by Kirsty MacColl and The Pogues. It has everything; sad, funny, ironic, moving, energetic, sentimental and festive. Perfect”

Colin McCann is a percussionist who specialises in Samba workshops but also loves leading Junk Percussion workshops.

“My favourite is In The Bleak Midwinter (words based on a poem by Christina Rossetti and music by Gustav Holst). I love the words; they are so emotive.”

Chris Woodham is a professional percussionist who specialises in World Percussion workshops but also loves leading Composition workshops.

“My favourite Christmas Song is When a Child is Born, by Boney M, (written by Zacar with lyrics by Fred Jay) which was released in 1981, the year of my birth.

It’s from the Christmas Album by Boney M that used to be a firm favourite in the Woodham household.  I’ve always been drawn to reggae, and the album includes lots of lovely ‘reggaefied’ classic songs.  I really like When a Child is born because it uses humming then a full choir and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, also has some spoken word and a key change. What’s not to like! It was recorded at Abbey Road and Air studios both of which I have been lucky enough to work at in the past.”

Sarah Ford is an actor, director and singer, and leads many of our theatrical workshops such as Play in a Day.

“My favourites are Angels from The Realms of Glory (words by James Montgomery to the tune of “Regent Square” UK) and Hark the Herald Angels Sing (music by Felix Mendelssohn, words by Charles Wesley, amended by George Whitefield and Martin Madan).

The first one is because it’s a grand, full-out sing and the second because I love singing the descant.”

Johanna McWeeney is a violinist and journalist who writes and edits the Music Workshop Company blog and newsletters.

“My favourite Christmas piece is Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride, an orchestral piece that dates back to 1948. The lyrics weren’t written until 1950. I just love the melodies, the witty use of percussion and the fun textures from the brass, particularly the horse at the end. It really conjures up Christmas for me and it’s great fun to play.”

Alison Murray is the Project Manager for the Music Workshop Company and liaises with clients to help them find their perfect project.

“Once In Royal David’s City, music composed by Henry John Gauntlet (1805-1876), words written by Cecil Francis Alexander (1818-1895), originally written as a poem.

Why?  The words of the song are so beautifully written, simple yet so meaningful, and of course when you hear the solo at the beginning, the sound is so pure and spine tingling. I have sung this song myself so often, since primary school days (a very long time ago now!) and we always sing it our church crib service, with everyone around the crib holding candles, it’s just magical.”

Your Year in Music

Our workshops here at the Music Workshop Company explore music, culture and history from all over the globe. Many festivals and important calendar events can be linked to a workshop theme to add depth and understanding to a topic.

This month we take a look ahead to see how music workshops relate to learning throughout the year.

Autumn Term

October is Black History Month, a month dedicated to the remembering and celebration of African culture. This is a culture rich in musical heritage, much of which is perfect for group learning and participation. Workshop choices include African Drumming, African Songs, South African Songs, Blues and Afro-American Songs.

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October 12th is Children’s Day in Brazil, a chance to try a Samba Workshop. Many countries around the world celebrate Children’s Day, honouring children and raising awareness of children’s issues. Read more about Latin American Percussion in our blog post.

October 31st is Halloween, a perfect opportunity to work on song writing and composition. Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve) is a Christian festival dedicated to remembering the dead, but has become synonymous with ghosts, ghouls and other spooky beings. A composition workshop could explore horror-movie style creepy music.

November 20th is Universal Children’s Day, an annual celebration first proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1954. It was established to encourage all countries to dedicate a day, firstly to promote mutual exchange and understanding among children and secondly to initiate action to benefit and promote the welfare of the world’s children. Song writing and composition workshops can be designed to look at the subject of Children’s Day.

November 30th is St Andew’s Day, the feast day of the Scottish patron saint. Learn about Scottish folk music in a Scottish Songs workshop, or try some Scottish dancing in a Ceilidh Workshop.

Spring Term

January 19th 2015 is Martin Luther King Day in the USA. The life and contribution of Martin Luther King is observed on the 3rd Monday in January throughout America. Integrate Blues and Afro-American Songs Workshops into your study.

January 26th is Australia Day. It’s the anniversary of the arrival of the first fleet of convict ships from Great Britain, and the raising of the Union Jack at Sydney Cove by its commander Captain Arthur Phillip, in 1788. This is a great subject to explore in a composition workshop and we also offer Australian Songs for a direct link to that extraordinary time.

February 1st February is National Freedom Day in the USA. President Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery on February 1st 1865. Explore American culture with our American Songs and Song Writing workshops.

Monday 2nd February 2015 is Constitution Day in Mexico and a chance to try a Mexican Songs workshop.

February 6th is Waitangi Day in New Zealand Day. This holiday commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi; New Zealand’s founding document. Explore the New Zealand culture with a New Zealand Songs workshop.

March 1st is St David’s Day, the feast day of the Welsh patron saint. Wales, and an opportunity to study Welsh Songs and Dance in our workshops.

African DrumsMarch 6th is Ghanaian Independence Day. An African Drumming workshop will give a fantastic window into the culture, people and history of Ghana.

March 17th is St Patrick’s Day in Ireland. Learn about the incredible musical history of Ireland in our Irish Songs workshop.

April 2nd is International Children’s Book day. Song writing and Composition workshops can be based on favourite books and stories to look at aspects such as character and plot development in literature.

Summer Term

April 23rd is St George’s Day in England. England has a wonderful folk music history which you can discover in our English Songs and English Dance workshops.

May 23rd May is Labour Day in Jamaica. Until 1961, May 24 was celebrated as Empire Day in Jamaica, in honour of the birthday of Queen Victoria and her emancipation of slaves in Jamaica.In 1961 the day was renamed Labour Day, remembering the anniversary of Jamaica’s independence. Relevant workshops include Jamaican Songs and Song Writing.

June 1st is Children’s Day in Poland. The festival was introduced in Poland in 1952 and coincides with the beginning of summer. Schools organise special activities and the festive events run during the first week of June. Parents buy small gifts for their children. The Polish Songs workshop looks at the culture of Poland.

June 14th is Bastille Day in France. Bastille Day is the French National Day commemorating the beginning of the French Revolution. This is an opportunity to explore the French Songs workshop.

All of our workshops are tailored to the specific needs of our clients and the participants. To discuss a custom-built workshop exploring any of these festivals and events, contact the Music Workshop Company today.

 

 

Junk Percussion: Recycling, Design and Music

Our junk percussion workshops create a space for learning all sorts of skills. Participants use every-day objects, many of which would otherwise end up in the rubbish or recycling bin, to build their own instruments, experiment with sound, compose music and prepare for a performance.

The workshop develops a range of activities across the curriculum. In inventing, building and playing the instruments, students explore aspects of music, design, science, geography and World cultures.

Junk percussion isn’t a new idea. Centuries ago, people made drums and other instruments from objects they found, including bones, wood and hard-shelled fruit called gourds. African slaves who weren’t allowed to play their own drums would make instruments in secret from shipping boxes and dresser drawers. Orchestral instruments have been made from rubbish recovered from landfill sites too. In Paraguay, The Orchestra of Instruments Recycled From Cateura, is a youth orchestra for deprived children with even violins and cellos made from scrap material.

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Instruments can be made from almost anything, from ‘ready made’ drums such as plastic dustbins, pots and pans and plastic or metal buckets to plastic bottles, chopsticks, pencils, boxes and metal bottle tops.

Make Your Own Instruments

First, decide what kind of instrument you want to make. There are lots of different percussion instruments, some you hit, some you shake, others with rough surfaces that are played with a stick, some that ring or clash and some that are tuned. In fact, the piano is even classed as a percussion instrument because it works by a series of hammers, activated by the fingers on the keyboard, which strike strings inside the instrument.

Think about the way a drum works. It has a hollow body through which the sound vibrates, and some kind of skin that can be struck with the hands or with drum sticks. Any hollow object could form the basis of a drum – an ice cream box, a bucket, an old tin or anything you can think of. Similarly, the drum skin could be made from all sorts of materials; plastic sheeting, paper, fabric, balloons or cling film. The skin needs to be stretched across the top of the container and fixed firmly in place. You can try using pencils, sticks of wood or chopsticks as beaters. Different materials will produce very different sounds.

Likewise, a shaker can be made from any hollow container that can be sealed, and can contain all sorts of things to shake inside it. Dried beans perhaps don’t count as junk, because you could always eat them, but how about lost buttons, nutshells, bottle tops, coins or even pebbles cleared from your garden.

Different materials will have different qualities. Metal rings, cardboard thuds, harder substances will make clearer, louder sounds than soft materials. Plan your instrument with a sound in mind. For a deep sound, the instrument must be bigger, so a dustbin could make a great bass drum. Have a look at some pictures of orchestral percussion instruments to see the variety of shapes, sizes and materials. Can you imagine what each would sound like? If you can listen to some percussion music, that will help stir your imagination.

Once you’ve made and decorated your instruments, it’s time to learn some rhythms, compose your own pieces and practice playing together to build up to your performance. World music contains many rhythms that work together to create fantastic sounds. You can explore these using the instruments you have invented to make a truly unique piece of music.

If you would like to read more about the workshop contact the Music Workshop Company for a Junk Percussion Education Pack.

Composition, Improvisation and Creativity

The Music Workshop Company (MWC) runs a range of workshops based on a wide variety of World Music, including African Drumming, Samba, Junk Percussion and Singing.

We also run Music Composition workshops during which participants create and perform new music under the guidance of one of our workshop leaders. These workshops can be based on a theme or topic, or they can focus on a particular style of music such as pop, jazz or classical. Compositions are built up from ideas, notes or chords, often using improvisation, and built into a final performance where students play the pieces without sheet music.DSC_0033

Improvisation is an effective tool in a classroom composition workshop, and is not exclusive to children who play instruments. In fact, using percussion instruments or voice and getting children away from the technical constraints of their violin or clarinet can free them to experiment more confidently.

A workshop exploring improvisation can also be designed as a one-off event for budding musicians, perfect for an Arts Week in school, or for a group such as a youth orchestra or music summer school. It can even be used in the workplace as a team-building exercise and to develop creative thinking.

Playing from memory and improvising are both concepts that can be intimidating, but they are integral to a creative workshop experience. This month, Matthew Forbes, professional cellist and MWC workshop leader, introduces the topic of improvisation, and explains why he believes it is so important to musical development.

“Few words in the vocabulary of the musician provoke such an extreme reaction as ‘Improvise!’

I have known it to strike fear into the heart of the most experienced professional, and yet to trigger excitement in the eyes of children. Why is this?

Many people seem to think that improvisation is a skill that you either can ‘do’ or not, depending on personality and natural ability. These people, in my experience, are the ones who confess themselves to be unable. And yet the only difference between them and those who ‘can’ is the environment and teaching that they have received and absorbed on the subject.

Matthew Forbes

Matthew Forbes

In the UK, and particularly in England, the opportunities to learn how to improvise have been very slow in coming. For as long as I can remember, to learn an instrument at school or privately, you must learn how to read music on top of all the physical techniques of the instrument itself. The two elements are inextricably paired. Moreover, the written word is sacrosanct. You must play THAT note, THEN, and for THAT long.

This is a lot to take in at once.

Is it any wonder then that so many give up or never reach their potential? Despite so many developments in the progress of literacy education in this country, why is it still assumed that in order to progress as a musician you have to be able to read as well as you play? As a professional classical musician who still finds reading music the hardest thing of all, it upsets me deeply to think that so many people stall in their musical experience because of this weight of responsibility to be a good reader. Not everyone is, and when learning a musical instrument or studying singing, the two senses that are most crucial must be the aural and kinaesthetic. Particularly for us boys, this latter sense is much stronger and more easily learned than the skill of turning a written symbol into a sounding gesture. The physical act of playing or singing can be far more powerful and satisfying than we give it credit for. The same part of the brain that catches a ball, holds a knife and fork and writes with a pen has limitless power to weave the same magic with a bow, a mouthpiece or a keyboard.

‘Some students respond well to the chance to improvise or develop skills away from written music.’ Maria Thomas, MWC

Think of some of the great non-reading musicians of the last hundred years: Art Tatum, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder to name a few. Their engagement with the music, the audience and their ideas had nothing to do with anything written down, yet their skill and attention to fine detail were as rigorously crafted as any great concert pianist or opera singer. Just because music is improvised does not mean it has to be jazz, despite the strong associations. Mozart, Beethoven, Messaien and many others were proud improvisers, developing their voice and their style through immediate participation.

Thankfully improvised music is more and more finding its importance in performance and music education now. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority’s schemes of work for primary and secondary schools all mention improvising as a vital skill for any musician, particularly in regard to any cross-cultural participation. To assume that “I just can’t do it” is like saying that because he has never done it, a professional chef can’t bake a loaf of bread. The myth that improvising is some magical power needs to be dispelled. Improvisation is as much a teachable and learnable discipline, along with sight-reading, playing chamber music or song writing.

The secret to it is to start from a place of comfortable familiarity and develop one step at a time from there. A child who can only play one note can still improvise! There is still rhythm, there are dynamics, structures and ideas. Similarly, the student who doodles incessantly and without focus needs a framework to turn their repeated random sounds into something coherent. photo 3

Any composing, whether written or not, needs parameters – a framework. Some musicians find these parameters comforting, some find them restrictive. In my fifteen years of teaching improvisation, the first category tend to be female, the second male. This is not a judgement on whether one is better than the other, nor is it any more than a general observation. But being aware, as a student of improvising, which one is more ‘you’ can be reassuring.

Music, in its bewildering beauty, is rich with potential angles from which to begin – rhythm, melody, visual stimulus or a deliberate effort to break free of convention.

 For young players this is particularly to be encouraged. All the times I was told, ‘Stop messing around and practise what you’re meant to,’ made me even more curious to find my own sound. I only realise now how significant this act of rebellion was.

 But improvising is not really rebelling – it is the musical equivalent of thinking out loud. Throw away that music stand for an hour. Play something. Sing something. See what happens…”

Whatever the level of musical or instrumental skill in your classroom or workplace, MWC can create a workshop to facilitate and develop improvisation. Contact us today to discuss a bespoke Composition or Improvisation workshop for your school, business or community group.

 

The Music of North Africa

Our World Percussion Workshops at the Music Workshop Company  introduce participants to music from around the globe. We include African Drumming and Samba techniques, which we have looked at in detail in previous blogs, and we also investigate the music of North Africa.

North Africa has always been a region of diverse cultures, ethnicities and religions. Its recorded history stretches back to the Phoenician sea traders, Carthaginians and Greeks, and the area was under Roman control from around 200 BC to 300 AD. Subsequent Arab-Islamic conquests continued until the 16th century when the Ottoman Turks conquered Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Morocco was ruled by successive Arab-Berber Muslim dynasties until the 19th century, and many regions of North Africa were under the colonial control of France and Italy during the 19th and 20th centuries.Egypt_lyre_001

There has not been much detailed study of the early musical history of North Africa, with most historical information focusing on music from no further back than the 20th century. However, the music of the region dates back many thousands of years. In the period of ancient Egyptian history known as the Old Kingdom, which spanned from 2686-2181 BC, harps, flutes and double clarinets were commonly played, and are depicted in many paintings found in ancient burial chambers. The music developed to include percussion instruments, lutes and lyres during the Middle Kingdom, which was from 2050 to 1650 BC. This was more than 300 years before the reign of Tutankhamen.Egypt music

The North African region West of Egypt, is known as the Maghreb, a term which originates from the Arabic gharb, meaning west, and maghrib, meaning sunset. The Maghreb area includes Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and has an extensive tradition of folk music with ancient roots in the cultures of the Berbers, Sephardic Jews, Tuaregs and Nubians.

At MWC we use a North African goblet drum to explore these traditions in our workshops. The darbuka or darabouka drum, also known as the doumbek or derbeki, is a single headed membraphone hand drum, which was played in ancient Babylonia and Sumeria as early as 1100 BC. The name darbuka comes from the Arabic word darba, meaning to strike. The drum is played under the arm, or resting on the player’s leg. The technique requires a much lighter touch than other hand drums such as the West African djembe, and strokes include rolls and quick rhythms, which are articulated with the fingertips.

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There are two main types of goblet drum. The Egyptian style has rounded edges around the head of the drum, and the Turkish style has straight edges. The exposed edge of the Turkish drum allows closer access to the head, facilitating the finger-snapping techniques, whereas the rounded edge of the Egyptian drum makes it possible to perform rapid finger rolls.

The drum is played lightly with the fingertips and palm to produce a low, resonant sound. A hand can be placed in the bell of the drum and moved in and out to alter the tone, but the drumming technique consists of three main sounds

The first is called the doum. It is a deep bass sound produced by striking the head near the centre of the head with the palm and fingers. The fingers are held together and straight, and the hand is allowed to bounce off the drum immediately.

The second is a rim-stroke called the tek, produced by hitting the edge of the drum-head with the fingertips of the middle and ring fingers. This creates a higher-pitched sound which can also be struck with the secondary hand making a sound called a ka.

The third is the closed, slap sound called pa. The hand is rested on the drum head rapidly hand on the head to not permit an open sound. Fingers are looser than for the bass sound and remain on the drum skin.

DSC_0028There are also several more complex techniques which include snaps, slaps, pops and rolls. These variations, along with hand-clapping and making sounds by hitting the side of the drum, can all be used to ornament the basic rhythms.

Contact the Music Workshop Company today to enquire about our World Drumming Workshops.

Play in a Day

The Music Workshop Company’s “Play in a Day” workshop grew indirectly from Maria’s experience organising school plays and concerts. The aim of the workshop is for participants to work together with workshop leaders and teachers to stage a play in just one day.

The idea for “Play in a Day” came from talking to primary school teachers with no music or drama specialism. Many teachers found it hard to know where to start when asked to put on a performance, and others were too busy to spend weeks planning and preparing.

Putting on an affordable, successful production requires experience and confidence, and it takes time to find a story, research music and co-ordinate a performance. It takes a level of expertise to judge what the participants can achieve in the time, individually and as a group, and to know how best to use performance space, instrumentation and choreography. This is where MWC excels.SAM_1669

“Play in a Day” was developed for schools and community groups; Brownies, Guides, Cubs, Scouts and holiday clubs. In the course of a day, workshop participants learn songs, dances and percussion pieces from around the world, or from different periods in history. The workshop utilises simple, effective pieces that are quick and easy to learn, which allows participants to perform to a high standard within the intensive one-day framework. These pieces are linked through dialogue into a play with music.

One of our favourite themes for “Play in a Day” is a Magic Carpet story, a trip around the World where the main characters get to experience many different cultures. The performance includes singing, dancing and percussion, depending on which countries are visited. In previous workshops the magic carpet has stopped off in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Israel, Palestine, India, Egypt, Ghana, South Africa, China, Japan and Brazil.

Sometimes the play is themed to incorporate International events like the World Cup or the Olympics, or it can tell the story of a festival such as Christmas. We can make a play to fit around specific topics, countries or cultures being studied by the children in other lessons, or even tell a Time Travel story.

When we’re working with a school, several classes will join together to create a performance. Each class will learn at least two pieces of music, which the MWC team choose to suit, amongst other things, the theme of the play and the age of the participants. These pieces are often picked on the day so they really work for each specific workshop group.

A workshop for four primary school classes, working with up to 35 children in each session, will contain a performance incorporating at least eight pieces, which can last from 20 to 30 minutes in total.

Sometimes participants choose to give their final performance to the rest of the school or to invite parents along, and even to make a video of the play to use in the school.

“Play in a Day” is a brilliant activity for primary school children, which was how the original concept was devised. It’s also an ideal workshop for all ages and abilities, in schools, or in community settings where we can work with up to 40 participants. Workshop leaders adapt the workshop to the abilities, creative inspiration and needs of the students.

One of our focuses at MWC is to work with clients to create workshops tailored specifically to their needs. “Play in a Day” is the perfect vehicle to design this sort of customised workshop, and to take advantage of the skills and knowledge of our workshop leaders and musicians to produce a wonderful performance that the children will learn from, be proud of and enjoy!

To enquire about our “Play in a Day” workshop, please contact the MWC team to discuss your requirements, pick a theme and book a day for your play.

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