The Story of the Steampunk Arkestra

A Co-constructed Music Ensemble

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by Jeni Little

The model of music teaching I was trained in no longer reflects the world of my students or even myself any longer. This teaching model is based around Western European Art music and the musical ensemble combinations that reside comfortably in that “space”.

Here are some facts based on my own observations across a wide range of schools in differing deciles. The average NZ music classroom may or may not have a professionally active music specialist. The classroom will have an array of instruments in various states of useability or disrepair. More often than not (although the balance is shifting), the classroom will have a formal Classical (Western European Art Music) focus.

Pre costumes.
Pre costumes.

Many schools have a long tradition of ensembles and choirs, which have been established for many years. These ensembles are sometimes driven or motivated by competitions. Sometimes these traditions can a lock a school into particular set pathways.

But are the traditional ways the only way or even the most valid? When teachers challenge these traditional models they are not necessarily dismissing older/traditional models as being of no current worth.

In a school with established traditions this may mean that on entry to some secondary schools, the music teacher will actively recruit students to certain instruments in order to fill the needs of the groups that they might have running in the school. Sometimes students have prior learning on a “required” instrument or they might be offered lessons and another instrument in order to fill a need.

Doing the Lambeth Walk.
Doing the Lambeth Walk.

I have some discomfort with this process and this year I finally understood why. Formal music groups such as symphony and chamber orchestras, concert bands, stage bands, string quartets etc have a standard “format” and require certain ratios or instruments.

This approach seemingly requires the student to fit into the needs of the group or in the bigger picture, of the music department.

But what of the student who presents with a different but equally high quality set of musical skills? This would include students who have learned by ear, who may show an intuitive and organic approach to learning? A student who does not necessarily want to have to learn the French horn or the cello but who willingly engages in building skills on mandolin, ukulele and cajon? How do I meet their needs to be part of an ensemble working regularly and building skills to a high level?

Well, it requires the teacher to build musical ensembles and experiences around the individuals we find in front of ourselves rather than the other way around.

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A Case Study – the Steampunk Arkestra

At my school we create our own production each year. It is purpose written for the students who wish to be involved, usually based on an existing classic story such as “Canterbury Tales” or “Around the World in 80 Days”. Productions involve drama, dance and music and are largely co-constructed by the teachers of those subjects.

In 2013 thirteen students signed up to be musicians for the school production, instruments included: trumpet, clarinet, voice, bass guitar, guitar, ukulele, mandolin, banjo, cajon, djembe drums, tom toms, stripped back drum kit, and a variety of African percussion instruments.

Given the unlikelihood that I could find arrangements for this collection of instruments, I had to think differently. We chose several existing pieces of music to use as templates and starting points – this allowed the dancers to begin their choreography but allowed us freedom to continue developing the music.

Dance Hall.
Dance Hall.

Thus the Steampunk Arkestra was born – suitably costumed and completely embraced by the audiences who attended the production, they played everything from music hall songs to traditional Indian and African traditional material. Our name came from the theme of the 2013 production (Steampunk) and the word Arkestra is in honour of Sun Ra’s arkestra – and also a name to mark ourselves apart from traditional ensembles.

A crucial step forward occurred when the Arkestra were invited to perform at a Halloween party by a local Queen of Steampunk who had seen them in the production and immediately loved their unique style and sound.

Playing at Grizelda's.
Playing at Grizelda’s.

The Arkestra embraced the process of co-creation and continue to WANT to perform together. It has caused to me to change my departmental management and to think about how to better meet my students needs. I consider this to be an unreserved success.

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6 thoughts on “The Story of the Steampunk Arkestra

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts borne out of experience and reflection, Jeni. Yes – the needs of the learner are paramount. Great to see such diversity being honoured and embraced. This is one reason why the subject was named, “Music-Sound Arts” way back in 2000.
    Best wishes.

  2. This is also very pertinent for smaller music departments, where the liklihood of actually being able to form a jazz band / orchestra/ string quartet etc is remote.

  3. I enjoyed reading this Jeni. You’re an inspirational teacher – I know this already, and I think your students are very lucky indeed to have someone with such an open mind who embraces and deals creatively with all the diverse skills and personalities which appear before her.

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