Thursday, 26 March 2009

Balafon fun in the Plantation Garden

Last week, with other artists and teaching staff, I took a group of nine and ten year olds to Norwich's Plantation Garden, a former quarry transformed by a Victorian gentleman. We were exploring, very loosely, the concept of sacred space and contrasting the Garden with the Roman Catholic Cathedral in the adjacent plot. The former represents one man's vision while the latter is more corporate in its design and execution.

We had a great time in the Garden, playing with mirrors, pinhole cameras and magnifying glasses. (This was about seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary.) There is a gothic fountain with frogs and fish and we took samples to view through microscopes.

So what was a musician doing there? Well, partly it was about cross-disciplinary exchange and I very much enjoyed that. But my own contribution, besides a magnifying glass grabbed as an afterthought as I left home, was an old wooden xylophone. I brought two pairs of beaters and just the notes C D E F# & A as well as the same notes an octave higher. I could have chosen any other pentatonic scale: the beauty of pentatonic scales is that there are no 'wrong' notes and it is easier to generate sonorous harmonies.

When the time feels right I sit in the sun playing the instrument until it catches a child's attention. I then teach them to play a simple game based on West African balafon technique which needs two people. By now someone else wants a go so I relinquish my beaters and help them get started. From here on in it's just a matter of making sure everyone gets a turn. Occasionally I remind them of the game but they are often happy just enjoying the sound, making up their own games or playing random notes in time with each other. The sound drifts around the garden.

I have yet to play here officially but my friend Andy Kirkham, whom I play with in Eastern Straynotes, has played in the Plantation Garden for weddings. I look forward to my own turn. Oh, and the balafon game will be Game of the Month at in April. I'll describe it and suggest some possible applications.

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