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COVID has helped navigate the unknown: Musica Viva

Topology, Taking Shape - Musica Viva
Graham Strahle
| November 22, 2020

In a normal year, a busy roster of touring ensembles in Musica Viva’s In Schools tour around Australia giving performances to some 20,000 primary school children. But of course, this year has been anything but normal, and in May the organisation worked overtime to shift its entire education program online in response to the pandemic. Not only was it able to keep In Schools going through all the restriction and lockdowns, but it also created a powerful new means of delivery that will be a permanent part of the program in future years.

Michael Sollis, Musica Viva’s Artistic Director, Education, and director of Musica Viva In Schools Online, says it was a big job rising to the challenges of 2020, but that the results exceeded their expectations. Those challenges involved all the complexity of bringing online interactive concerts into schools of varying needs and circumstances, equipping teachers to help co-deliver the learning experience, and devising complementary learning materials for children’s use either at home or in the classroom, as requirements dictated.

Here, Sollis describes how Musica Viva itself gained from the experience. He also offers a glimpse into the 2021 In Schools program in which 16 groups again will be participating: again, there will be Taikoz and Da Vinci’s Apprentice, which will present a baroque opera written by Australian composer Sally Greenaway. Others will include Topology, who perform music written on the spot by kids, and two new groups, Moon Radio Hour and Two Wheel Time Machine.

“What we learned is that there is a flexibility of ways that we can ensure creativity stays alive. So, when the pandemic hit, we worked with our 16 ensembles to give them the tools to adapt their program online. We managed almost overnight to establish a framework, which has allowed us to have close to 500 interactive online performances, although we’ve also had many live performances as restrictions have eased.

Even between states and territories, there have been differences. So, some schools [present the sessions] on a projector screen in an assembly hall, while in others we were in classes, or on remote devices if a school was being delivered remotely altogether.

It’s been an amazing journey. What it has really shown is how important creativity is in times of uncertainty, because we’ve found incredible instances where students have been able to share in a musical event with their classmates and teachers, which has really developed their wellbeing and resilience at this time. And I think music teachers have seen that as well. There’s been overwhelming feedback [to us] that creative education in music is more important than ever. The role that music is playing at this time is so critical because it allows students to navigate the unknown.

I’m in schools on a weekly basis and can see how challenging it is with the changing circumstances, as when schools have gone remote and so forth. But the creative arts, and music in particular, are almost built to withstand those challenges. When you’re a music teacher, you’re always dealing with uncertainty. That’s what creativity is. It is when you might be introducing a piece of music to a student for the very first time, something they’ve never heard before, but then you’ve got to navigate this unknown language. Or may be that the class is creating something that’s brand new, and as a teacher you don’t know what the final outcome is going to be.

As creative educators, we develop the skills to be able to deal with that uncertainty, to navigate it. And for those teachers who may not have that confidence to do so, Musica Viva gives teachers that confidence.

It is challenging, but as a discipline we’re built to meet that, whereas in other disciplines there’s a predefined outcome that you are looking to achieve. In music and the arts, it is about the process more than the final outcome. What we hope is that the program that we offer gives teachers support by bringing in wonderful teaching artists into the classroom and into the homes of students through our digital resources, to really provide some of those skills of dealing with the unknown.

Next year in our program, if we can perform live in schools and bring the program right into the classroom, we will be doing that. But if we can’t, we have developed a wonderful suite of other ways we can reach students and schools. Our program has evolved because of COVID, to offer much more support, professional development and access to online communities.

Of course, we would have never wanted COVID to have happened, but there are also wonderful opportunities you can do online that you can’t do in real-life. For example, this year, in one of our new programs called ‘Taking Shape’ by Topology, they were able to connect with kids around Queensland all at the same time, creating a piece of music through their contributions online. These kids from Longreach, Mt Isa up to Cape York were connecting to each other because of online technology.

Next year, Moon Radio Hour is a wonderful new show in which students get to build a sketch show with improvised music and think about how they can embrace the unexpected. It takes the form of a spaceship that’s off in the distance trying to radio beam in anyone who will listen, which happens to be the students. The musicians come from a really eclectic background of jazz, chamber music and session music. It’s a bit Monty Pythonesque with sousaphones, drums, saxophones, kazoos and electronic instruments as well.

The other new program, Two Wheel Time Machine, is a kind of chamber rock opera about how learning to create and make music is like learning how to ride a bike. It’s a beautiful program, performed by musicians who have had a lot of experience with music theatre in the past. Both of these programs are about embracing the unknown – and what more relevant time to be thinking about that!”

Find out more about Musica Viva In Schools, including online booking details, here.

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