Combining Movement and Classical Music at the Australian Chamber Orchestra

A woman plays a cello while a teenage boy in a wheelchair touches it with his right hand.At the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO), access and inclusion are core organizational values. Their triennial disability action plan is a major part of the strategic plan, and comprehensively sets goals for inclusion in every aspect of the organization’s work. This includes their signature education program for students with disabilities, ACO Move.

ACO Move is a series of sessions for young people with disabilities featuring movement and live music. ACO Customer Relations and Access Manager, Dean Watson, who has a background in dance, conceived of the program six years ago to offer adolescents with disabilities an arts learning opportunity with the Sydney-based string ensemble.

ACO Move takes place over five two-hour sessions, with a group of approximately ten young participants alongside program facilitators, a quartet of ACO musicians, and a percussionist. Each session begins with a welcome, warm up, and introductions, followed by a series of music and movement exercises. Watson says the facilitators plan many exercises to allow for flexibility in the sessions and “are prepared to adapt.”

Two teenage boys raise their arms in the air while musicians play violins.Watson says some of the student participants have never heard classical music before, and creating a “soundscape” helps to familiarize everyone. The percussionist brings instruments for the participants to use, and everyone works together to build up sound based on a given idea, such as a storm or wave. This builds a sense of community and trust among the group, says Watson, adding, “Everyone performs together, including the ACO musicians, and by the end we’ve created a new ensemble with a composition we can call our own!”

The sessions focus heavily on the theme of dynamics, and Watson and his collaborators use musical terminology like crescendo, diminuendo, staccato, rhythm, and rest to convey this idea. When a term is introduced, the ACO artists first demonstrate the concept musically. The facilitators then turn it into a movement, and the participants imitate and improvise, ultimately building a theatrical piece.

Tactile and sensory learning are also core components of the ACO Move sessions. Participants touch instruments at rest, lay on the ground while a cello is played, or hug a double bass while it is played. Watson also incorporates the sensory learning and soundscape creation as major parts of the ACO’s education sessions in primary and high schools for students with disabilities.

Young adults with disabilities dance to live classical music.Each year, Watson seeks to engage a guest artist with a disability to collaborate on the ACO Move program. The upcoming 2017 sessions will incorporate original compositions for string quartet by a young Australian composer with cerebral palsy. In 2016, the young writer and actor Emily Dash diarized the project and created original spoken word pieces to perform at the presentation day that concludes each ACO Move series.

According to Watson, ACO Move’s success can be attributed to the organization’s commitment to the program, from the administrators to the board to the musicians. He says, “When we invite people to participate [in ACO Move], we want them to feel as though they are part of the ACO family. This means they have access to everything in the building, can communicate freely with the musicians and staff, and feel like an equal part of the ensemble we create.” ACO is currently investigating opportunities to expand ACO Move through partnerships with arts and disability organizations, as well as with the venues in which the orchestra plays.

For more information, contact dean.watson@aco.com.au.

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