MAD Collaboration

Yes, we artistic types are sometimes accused of being quite mad, but in this case MAD stands for Music, Art, Drama. Recently, students of the three disciplines at Beijing BISS International School were showcased in a very pleasing way. The three Arts teachers, Catherine Rankin (Drama), Gillian Mercer (Visual Art) and I collaborated in the presentation.

Grade 9 Clarinetist, Terry Zhu

Here’s how the show went:


The first part, logically enough was the ‘M’ for Music and I had a selection of my grade 9 Music students playing short compositions from their Ground Bass Project. The idea of the project was to learn about this composing technique widely used in the Baroque Period. Most people are familiar with the Pachelbel Canon, which is a very good example of a piece composed on a ‘ground’ or repeating bass line. The students all created ground bass lines and then chose someone else’s to create these excellent sounding pieces. We have been building up a Ground Bass Bank in their class wiki. I hope to build the project into a wider collaboration next year. Here is one of the pieces, composed by Charles Zhou – called ‘EMO Bass’. Charles’ classmates Simon Lu (piano) and Terry Zhu (clarinet) did a great job playing his piece in the concert.

Collaboration was the theme for the whole night. More compositions were played by students through the concert. Congratulations to Alex Ding (flute), Tony Foo (guitar), Simon Lu (piano), Sang Hyun Woo (piano) and Jung Woo Han (violin). I also helped the students by playing cello and flute with them for some of the pieces.

Another highlight was the singing of Violet Lindsay. Violet is a grade 11 Music student who has been working hard on her singing during the past year. She sang a difficult song from Phantom of the Opera, Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again –  accompanied by Julie Lindsay on piano. Well done Violet!

Violet Lindsay, Grade 11 BISS Student

We also showcased the performing talents of a number of students who played piano beautifully. Congratulations to Grace Chung (gr 10), Andy Park (gr 10) and Jesse Zhao (gr 8). A special note should be made about Jesse’s playing. Although only a grade 8 student, he plays with such a spectacular technique and sparkling musicianship, that he is someone to watch in the future. He played Chopin ‘Black Key’ Prelude absolutely brilliantly.


We had a short interval in the concert at this point, which gave the audience an opportunity to look at the Art Exhibition on display in the Courtyard. Work was by the Grade 10 students of Gillian Mercer, our brilliant art teacher who will sadly be leaving China next year to take up a new job in Darwin, Australia. The works were beautiful two and three dimensional prints all created in the theme of ‘clouds’. As always, the quality of the visual art produced by Gillian’s students was consistently high, with the work always offering some deeper meaning than just a superficial, aesthetic experience. Wonderful work Gillian and students!

Grade 10 'Cloud' print
Grade 10 - Cloud print 2


The final part of the MAD Showcase was the grade 10 Drama students’ play called Nosrep. ‘Nosrep’ is person spelt backwards and the script was created by the students and Cath Rankin, our talented Theatre Arts teacher. Nosrep is a puppet play and details the turbulent experiences of a young student growing up with dyslexia. The students, only four of them, performed beautifully and must be congratulated. A great highlight for me too, was the fact that all the music used in the play was composed by the grade 10 Music students! Yes, I was very proud to hear how well their ‘commissioned’ work fitted with the changing moods of the characters in the play.

What a great Arts Faculty we have at my school and what a great bunch of students we have to work with.

Grade 10 Drama 'Nosrep'

Requiem – Karl Jenkins

What a great concert! I was so glad to be involved with this performance, last Saturday night. Students and staff from a number of Beijing Schools  and the Beijing youth Orchestra, conducted by Shane O’Shane, collaborated in a really stunning performance of the beautiful Karl Jenkins Requiem. The piece is a mixture of traditional Latin mass text and beautiful Japanese Haiku. Also, to compliment the elegant words of the Japanese poetry, the score calls for solo shakuhachi (the haunting Japanese flute) to weave beautiful decorated melodic lines into the texture with the singing. I was fortunate to be given the chance to play the solo flute lines – on my silver flute rather than the traditional instrument. I did try playing the melodies on some more primitive bamboo/wood instruments, but not on shakuhachi, which really requires a master player to do it justice. I found that playing the intricate decorated melodies on anything other than my ‘usual’ modern flute was not going to produce a good enough result, particularly regarding intonation. Having a love of Japanese music, I have always enjoyed playing and listening to it, and I was pleased with my playing and tone, especially as much of the playing was in the difficult low register. In fact, the composer writes on the score ‘shakuhachi or flute’ so I believe the instrumentation was still authentic and pleasing.

Now, this performance was quite unusual and challenging for me personally, as I had two different roles in the ensemble. As well as playing the solo flute parts, I also sang bass in the chorus. I found myself swapping from a standing position in the front of the basses for the Latin parts of the Requiem – to sitting in the orchestra to play flute in the ‘Japanese’ movements. Apart from the challenges of physically moving between the two parts, I had to be very careful to mark each score with ‘FLUTE’ or ‘SING’ at the top of each movement and to quickly find the correct spot in time for the start of each movement. Also, what to wear? Black for the orchestra or white shirt for the choir? I opted for white, since I was standing in the chorus. It was very interesting moving from the lowest pitches to the highest and a great experience which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Singers from Dulwich College Beijing, Western Academy of Beijing, Beijing BISS International School (congratulations to Kanchana Jaishankar) were joined by a large group of very young choristers from the Korean School. These young singers were beautifully trained and sang their hearts out. All were dressed in little matching pink jackets and they made a wonderful contribution to the performance. Their boy soprano soloist sang beautifully in the stunning ‘Pie Jesu’ with its extremely difficult high phrases. In fact, congratulations must go to all the soloists as well as the chorus and orchestra. Also, to the producers of the amazing visual display of still images which was projected behind the performers and ‘choreographed’ to accompany the music and add meaning to the text. The concert was sold out and the audience left the auditorium uplifted and satisfied by a truly amazing musical experience.

Student Life – Loving it!

I am well into my course now – week three. The 4-Summers Master of Music Education program at Northwestern University is a wonderful opportunity for me to formally take on the role of student again. As we always declare ourselves ‘lifelong learners’ in the International Baccalaureate program, this has been a test of my commitment to that mantra. I am happy to report that I am having a great time and learning heaps! The lecturers here are dynamic and very knowledgeable, experts in their fields. And my classmates are all highly motivated and experienced professional music educators. I am learning so much from networking with my colleagues as well as the formal lectures and assessment tasks.

MME Class of 2013 - Photo by Dr Carlos Abril

The social life amongst the students, is very ‘energetic’ to say the least. A ‘quick drink’ after ensemble rehearsal often ends in a 2:30am finish at Nevin’s, the local watering hole here in Evanston. Although I have been feeling ‘young at heart’ working with my much-younger colleagues, I must admit to ‘bailing out’ early a few times during the past week. Discretion the better part of valor!

Nevin's Pub
Gerard & NU Friends

We have six weeks each summer (four times) to cram in as much learning as possible. We are expected to take three course subjects each time and play or sing in a Summer Ensemble. My courses this time are: ‘Advanced Conducting: Before the Downbeat’; ‘Music Theory Review’; and ‘Music Technology’. I am also playing piccolo in the Concert Band.

I have been learning new skills and new ways to look at things (the most interesting aspect, I feel) in all of my subjects. Particularly, I have been impressed with my theory lecturer, Dr Susan Piagentini. She has a powerful knowledge and passion for the subject and teachers us in such a well-organised and thoughtful manner. Each day, we are set homework assignments which she returns immediately at the following class with excellent feedback. She monitors each student’s progress in a non-judgmental way and is the model of a good teacher. I have learnt new theory techniques and can feel my skills improving under her guidance. This will directly benefit my students, I am certain. Wonderful!

The conducting course too is great. Directed by Dr Robert (Bob) Hasty, my friend who conducted the wonderful Mozart Jupiter performance in the Forbidden City Concert Hall (see previous post) in Beijing earlier this year. His expertise in analysing scores (before the downbeat) has been enlightening. I will take a second course in a future summer to deal with the craft of conducting ‘after’ the downbeat. I have found it useful doing the two ‘analysis’ courses in tandem, as the skills studied in both are interchangeable. Both of these lecturers have opened my eyes to a more linear approach to music analysis. I have enjoyed refining my skills of looking for melodic ‘key markers’ and making informed judgements about phrasing, harmony and rhythm.

My third course is a compulsory component in the program, Music Technology. As my readers and colleagues will be aware, I am a lover of technology and particularly its use in music education. To be quite honest, I have been finding the learning tasks very easy in this course. I do see the value of ensuring that all graduates have the skills to confidently use available technology in their classrooms, but thanks to my work at BISS, I really am ahead of the game. We have a wonderful, dynamic and enthusiastic lecturer, Dr Maud Hickey. She has guided us patiently in our learning tasks, such as website publishing on the Northwestern University server. I am very pleased that I have had the chance to learn more about HTML code and video and audio streaming. I spent a few late nights tinkering with these skills. Having previously relied on WordPress templates for my web publishing (this blog), it has been a great chance to discover a few ‘tricks’ for designing and publishing my own pages. Check out my video page designed using iWeb and hosted on my own domain! Also, have a look at my Northwestern homepage designed using HTML and SeaMonkey. Follow the links to see some of the assignments we have done, including streaming audio and audio editing. As I said earlier, I feel have not been stretched with this course, but I have had the chance to refine and share my skills. Another valuable experience from my studies here at Northwestern and a good reflection of our successful use of technology at BISS.

The higher-years students have been warning us not to expect much ‘social’ time in our second year. We are expected to complete the two other compulsory components of the program, Philosophy and Curriculum concurrently in that six week block. This is apparently an onerous task. Well, at least we will have a year of teaching at our respective schools to get our minds ready for the challenge! I might even try to get a head-start on the reading before then.

Enough blogging for now. Back to my Bach Fugues!

Composing? – Start with an Idea

I’ve been thinking about composing lately. Not just doing composing, but how to be effective and compose something good. I have realised that often, the only thing that separates the ‘professional’ composer from the rest of us, is the fact that they actually capture their ideas and write them down. They produce something rather than just wishing for it. Of course there is the element of talent and skill, but let’s focus on the ‘getting started’ aspect of creating.

How often have you been part of a conversation around the dinner table, when discussing some piece of artwork -perhaps a controversial winner of a prize, say the Archibald Prize. Somebody always pipes up with, ‘I could have painted that!’ or ‘My three year old could have painted that!’ or worse ‘My dog could…..’. Sound familiar? It is usually meant to project some sort of superior, good taste from the speaker (which quite often backfires of course). It could also be an example of the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ – a well-known Australian phrase meaning we should cut ‘the tall poppy’ down to the size of all the other average-sized poppies. In other words, if anyone excels, especially in an artistic pursuit, the community wants to pull them back to the collective mediocrity of the accepted popular aesthetic standard. I am getting side-tracked, but here is the point I would like to make to that outspoken dinner party critic – if you think you could have done better, why didn’t you?

The attitudes reflected by our ‘chardonnay expert’ above, and the others around the table who nodded in agreement, may also be partly responsible for the fear which prevents us from taking a risk when creating, particularly when it comes to composing music.

So here is my thinking. Forget about producing a Mozart-like masterpiece, especially when you are starting out. Just start with an idea, but get it down (paper or digital).

I have been working with my music students on this way of thinking lately and I can see some good results already. Let’s make a list of possible composing ‘ideas’.

  • A melodic idea. It could be just an interval that you like. I developed a nice tune once from the idea of an ascending Major 7th. I thought it could be quite expressive used later in a song. You don’t need the whole tune, just a fragment – something you hummed in the shower or on the bus. If you like it, write it down. You might come back to it and make something of it.
  • A rhythmic idea. Think of ‘Take Five’ by Dave Brubeck. It’s all about the timing and the syncopated ostinato (repeating) rhythm ‘ba-dum, ba-dum, dum dum’.  Even a little piece of a scale with a dotted rhythm is more interesting than one with straight crotchets (quarter notes). If you group eight quavers (eighth notes) into 3+3+2 you get a very nice syncopated rhythm which could lead to something.
  • A chord or progression. Maybe you like the way two or three chords work together. Write it down. A few years ago, Savage Garden wrote a multi-million dollar song  ‘Truly Madly Deeply’ which is just built on a pattern of three triads (3 note chords) C major, G major, F major, back to G major. So simple, but what a great song! Of course, the way they put the melody together, the instrumentation and production was very clever and sophisticated BUT the first idea was very simple.
  • Words and lyrics. Maybe you think like a poet and words come first. If you have a nice line, try working it into a rhythm, then a melody, then finally you might add harmony. Now you have a song!

I could keep giving examples of how simple ideas can be grown into something great (or maybe just good or OK). The point is, let’s keep those ‘ideas’ that pop into our brains. Jot them down in Noteflight or on your lunch napkin.They might turn into something and just remember – a BAD tune is still better than NO tune.

Mozart’s Jupiter & the Forbidden Requiem

Mozart Jupiter Symphony rehearsal

Mozart Jupiter Orchestra - Forbidden City Concert Hall

I have been participating this week in a marvellous four days of music making and learning. The International Schools Choral Music Society gathered together the resources of about 400 students, music teachers and professional musicians from all over the world. We were hosted by Dulwich College, Beijing and co-ordinated and led by Festival Director and Head of Music at Dulwich, the indomitable Shane O’Shea. Three special guests shared their passion for music and expertise with the students and teachers leading workshops, lectures, masterclasses, conducting, coaching, cajoling us all to produce our best.

Pianist, Dr David Curtin (Lock Haven University, Pennsylvania, USA) played a wonderful recital celebrating the works of Chopin. His sparkling technique and musicianship inspired the IB music students who attended his piano masterclasses and his cheerful personality and sense of humour added a valuable dimension to the week. My two IB students from BISS, Maggie Liu and Harry Zhang played and participated in masterclass with Dr Curtin.

Composer, musicologist and music scholar, Dr Martin Adams (Senior Lecturer and Head of Music at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland) inspired students and staff with his passion and enthusiasm for music during his lectures focussing on the International Baccalaureate set works. Students and teachers gained a little of his insights and depth of thinking by having the opportunity to chat informally and attend his great lectures.

Dr Robert Hasty, Associate Director of Orchestras at Northwestern University (Chicago, USA) – coached and conducted the Festival Orchestra in a stunning performance of the Mozart Jupiter Symphony. I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to play flute in the symphony alongside the fine young international students and local musicians from the China conservatories. Under Dr Hasty’s patient guidance, particularly the string players made dramatic improvements during the three days of preparation and became a very fine orchestra in a very short time. Dr Hasty also led conducting masterclasses aimed at music teachers (including myself) and students. We all benefited enormously from his clear, logical explanations and fine conducting technique. It was a real privilege working with and learning from such a excellent musician.

As I have said, the culmination of all the hard work was the performance in the Forbidden City Concert Hall of Mozart’s epic Symphony 41 in C Major ‘Jupiter’ and his monumental Requiem. What an experience for us all to put on a concert like this in such a special location as Beijing’s Forbidden City. The requiem choir had about 300 singers on stage, with students and teachers from 19 International Schools as well as the visiting professors participating. Conducted by Festival Director Shane O’Shea, the sound of the choir was rich and beautiful. It is so unusual to witness a choral performance where the power of the voices easily matched that of the orchestra. The precision of the singing in the chorus was truly remarkable, with clarity of articulation, phrasing and diction enabling the difficult Latin text to be clearly heard throughout. The energy and power of the choir was tempered by the tight ensemble work achieved through detailed sectional practises.The hard work of all the schools and their music staff culminated in a thrilling and impressively accurate performance. I am so proud to have been involved and look forward to making an annual pilgrimage with my students to future Festivals.