Earlier this year, musician and vocal tutor Anita Mahon was engaged to deliver our first Summer Provision music workshops to schools online. Below, Anita recounts the challenges and limitations of working for the first time in a remote online format, as well as some of its unexpected joys.
I’ve admired The Ark for many years, both as a musician and in my previous career as an Arts Administrator. Standards of excellence and innovative and creative programming have always been their benchmark, so any opportunity to work with The Ark team is a privilege and a joy. This summer, I was in line to deliver the Creative Music and Drama in the Classroom Teachers' CPD summer course alongside drama practitioner Joanna Parkes, our sixth since 2013. CPD week in The Ark has been so special for us. Not only is The Ark a unique and fabulous venue with a treasure trove of instruments and materials, it has been wonderful to share and develop ideas with another artist, especially one from a different discipline. Over the years my practice and thinking has been challenged and enriched by this multidisciplinary approach and all in the cradle of an administration which is so respectful, so supportive and so vibrant.
How times have changed! Now, in the midst of Covid-19, with our worlds turned upside-down, projects shelved, performances cancelled and planning in freeze-frame, we’ve been forced to adapt to survive. Technology has been the saviour, but it is not my domain and for all its remarkable efficiency and connectivity, it demands hours of laborious, sedentary and stressful brain teasing, none of which is natural or creatively stimulating for a vocal musical mover such as myself. Nevertheless, I can now produce video music lessons with relative ease and to a decent homemade standard. The live musical experience is irreplaceable, but videos have served the purpose of maintaining contact and hopefully giving some inspiration to many of my school groups.
Zoom has brought us to places all over the world and facilitated a live teaching context of sorts. Its limitations in terms of music are significant. Online delay eliminates synchronous music sharing and the unifying power of the beat is lost in a varying time stammer which is massively frustrating. However, I am so grateful to The Ark for giving me the opportunity to deliver music workshops as part of their Summer Provision and I have relished the challenge of tweaking my practice and trialing different approaches.
Given the current extraordinary circumstances, we’ve had no time for concept gestation and trial. Instead, adjustments to plans have happened on the spot, and while I am used to responding and going with the flow, I am a planner! I have been so grateful for the support of Engagement and Participation Co-ordinator, Liam McCarthy, who has developed strong links with participating schools and who has handled the stress of hosting whilst I focus on the music and the participants. Our online two-hander has worked very well and our debriefing and joint reflection has been very important in terms of project development.
There were so many highlights to this new way of working and, oddly, working remotely became quite an intimate experience. The children felt like they were talking to a real live telly! A great example of this was with a lovely boy from inner city Dublin. He was so chatty and super curious about my eclectic selection of instruments. He loved my shruti box and just wished I could hand it to him through the screen to have a go! Then there was an adorable pre-verbal boy with ADHD who was so excited and to take part in music again on Day 2 of our workshops that he uttered a joyous ‘yeah’ when it was time for us all to explore sounds together.
The major advantage to working with small groups in this intimate way is that it is possible to fully engage and respond to the children on the spot. Whilst the normal lesson planning was in place, my plan became a guide and so if some girls displayed anxiety around singing, we explored fun ways to explore voice. If some loved dance, that was our starting point. In a large group, clearly it is not possible to tap in so directly to each individual child. If a child was fascinated with my ukulele, I could include a song with it. I would never have all my instruments with me in the classroom, but as I was in my music room, it was possible for the children to choose which instruments they wanted to hear.
The diversity in the workshops was just so wonderful! In complete contrast, I had some brilliant one to one sessions with a child who had quite advanced music training on harp, who also turned out to be a novelist in the making. Our first workshop started with a get-to-know-you chat, which lead to a discussion about exploring the harp as a percussive instrument and the various ways we could use a pencil to make sound on the strings. This child had never played music without a score and relished the freedom that ensued from experimenting and listening without the pressure of getting it right. In our second workshop we looked at how our sound exploration ideas could be the start of a soundtrack for her novel and before we knew it we were composing musical motifs for characters in her story!
Ultimately, working together, creating with and responding to children in a live context is where the magic happens. It is extraordinary that we can do this at home and deliver it anywhere in the world. On a personal note, I have gained extra confidence in my ability to adjust and go with the flow and to tune into what is happening in the present moment. Although it is still very upsetting that singing is a no go for the foreseeable, I know I am resilient and that it is possible to evolve and survive, and maybe even thrive through this pandemic.
Anita Mahon is a musician, vocal tutor, and musical director. Based in Wexford, Anita has worked extensively with children and adults across a wide spectrum of musical genres. Her passion for music, and in particular voice, is fired by the limitless potential of music and creative inclusivity to inspire a collective vision.
She has worked on a number of large-scale projects with children including the Big Sing with Limerick County Council involving 600 primary school children, Music Generation Carlow’s Encore primary school programme as well as on-going work in music schools and performance coaching.
Anita holds specialist training in the Estill Model of Voice Training and is a member of the Natural Voice Practitioners Network. She was also the founding musical director and conductor of the Munster Rugby Supporters Club Choir. http://www.anitamahon.com/
Anita has run many successful Continuous Professional Development (CPD) courses for teachers at The Ark and was engaged to deliver our first Summer Provision music workshops to schools online earlier this year. Evolving from this, she is now leading PlaySounds a 6-week long online music engagement project with a local school inspired by astronomy and the winter sky.