Case Studies

Ambient Orchestras with John Edgar (Founder)

Ambient Orchestras represents an extraordinary commitment by John Edgar to celebrate the profound love for music by many people with an intellectual disability. While working as a musician and disability support worker, John recognised a need for rehearsal, performance and recording opportunities. He felt that therapy-based music programs often lacked a 'results-based' opportunity in which individuals could develop various instrumental skills, compose music and then arrange, record and perform the pieces as a musical exchange with a wider audience.

John became determined to give people living with an intellectual disability the opportunity to contribute their own colour to the wider musical palette of the community and Ambient Orchestras was born.

Ambient Orchestras is about playing as an ensemble. Listening and communicating through the music, the participants are encouraged to develop not only practical skills, but judgement skills in knowing when and when not to play.  We provide an opportunity for individuals with a disability to become part of a wider artistic community that performs for the general public. This also enables other musicians to collaborate with the groups and contribute to bridging the gap between artists with and without a disability.

How does an Ambient Orchestra work?

Our program eschews any need for a steady, concise rhythm, rather focusing on creating colours or 'soundscapes' with a variety of electronic and acoustic instruments. Electric guitar, mandolin, banjo, ukulele and bass guitar are tuned so as to enable the participants to create sounds without prior knowledge or fine motor skill capacity. The first instrument I modified was a rocking Gibson SG electric guitar. It was modified in the sense that it was tuned to DADGAD, a tuning commonly used in folk music. That reduced the need for participants to have to form ‘chord shapes’ with their left hand as the strings strummed alone produce a pleasing chord. In running the guitar through a ‘wah-wah’ pedal and other various effects, the participants are able to focus on creating textures and rhythms with their hands and feet without requiring left hand technique. As the left hand is not necessary, those in wheel chairs sometimes use their left hand to operate the wah pedal if their legs are not strong enough. Strumming and picking technique is the focus, with dynamics and interplay deciding when to start and stop. Acoustic instruments such as the mandolin and ukulele are miked up with a bit of delay echo added to the mix, and the individuals are encouraged to find a two or three note pattern to repeat for a looped effect. The delay adds depth and 'ambience', creating a specific mood and tonal resonance. The program utilises percussion for colour rather than time. We use chimes, cymbals, shakers, triangles and castanets as well as everyday objects such as wine glasses, bubble wrap and bikes. Try miking up a mountain bike, spinning the wheels and dragging a piece of cardboard over them in motion, the effect is akin to a plane taking off! Synthesisers are also used adding a lush wave of electronica to the acoustic textures. Spoken word and singing is also encouraged, with focus on harmony as well as vocalisations  mouth percussion, whistles etc.

How do all these components work together?

They all support the ongoing interplay and musical communication of the group. As awareness of the sounds coming from their own instrument and those around them increases, so too does the quality of the performance, whether it be in rehearsal, recording, or to a live audience. There are currently six Ambient Orchestra groups with approximately 70 participants all meeting on a weekly basis. Four of the groups have performed at a community venue in the last six months, with one of the groups recording a piece for the 'Connected 09' exhibition at the Arts Centre in August.  One of the groups has recorded a five track EP as the score for The Boilover Theatre Production’s play, ‘All kinds of Fairytales’. Other groups have done paying gigs at various festivals around Melbourne, as well as playing at Community concerts in their respective areas.

How does being in an Ambient Orchestra benefit the participants and the community?

The nature of the music that Ambient Orchestras groups create is innately soothing  with dashes of dischord, and 'cinematic soundscapes’. We have had an extraordinary range of feedback about the effect of our music.

A member of one of the Delahey Community Centre’s groups is non-verbal but often vocalises loudly when he is both happy and frustrated. He performed with his group at the Errington Community Centre in June, giving an impassioned vocal display to a crowd of around 80 people. Afterwards, his emotional sister confided that it was the first time she had witnessed a positive response to her brother's vocalizations.‘James’ is a member of the first Ambient Orchestras group based in Footscray. He is a young man with a passion for music, especially film scores, and a natural appreciation for lower frequency sounds, as a hearing impairment prevents him from comprehending those in the higher frequency. Over the last two years, James has cultivated a devotion to the bass guitar that has resulted in him forging a chordal and melodic style all of his own. As Ambient Orchestras soundscapes do not adhere to metronomic time keeping, he is able to express himself freely without the usual snare drum based constrictions of most ensembles with a bass. Additionally, he has attended the rehearsals every Friday for two years, forging friendships with the group and outside collaborating musicians. This is heartening as James, a very quiet and private individual, had previously been at home with his elderly mother, accessing few services and remaining isolated from the community. James got his own bass and amp for his 28th birthday this year.

The effect on non-members can also be profound. One woman and her children attended two of the group's performances at the Errington Community Centre in St.Albans in June. She told us that her two kids, both under the age of four, would never usually sit still for a substantial stretch of time, but while the groups played 40 minutes total, they were quiet, attentive and intrigued by the sounds being created. At a performance in the grounds of the Melbourne Zoo, Greg Hunt, a wonderful violinist and mandolin player performed with  'Metamorphosis', the group from The Compass Clubhouse, part of the Acquired Brain Injury Unit at Melbourne City Mission. Greg, an accomplished recording and touring artist, was effusive afterwards in his praise for the group and their teamwork ethic, stating that the soundscapes were a, 'beautiful accompaniment' to solo over the top of, and insisted that he wanted to play again with the group at any time.

What sort of reaction do their performances get? Why?

On the whole the reaction seems to be one of initial surprise, and then utter enjoyment! I think most people are surprised at the level of artistry of the group, truly blown away by how good the music is!I also have a theory that many people with an intellectual or physical disability are used to being looked at. Getting on stage in front of a crowd is a piece of cake, as this sort of pressure is a day-to-day reality for many of them. The lack of nerves before a show never ceases to amaze me.The impact on the wider community is illustrated through attendances at the performances and the offers for help through volunteer support, use of venues for rehearsal and performances, and donation of instruments.

Can the players continue playing at home, or is there something about the practice setting which makes it work?

Practicing at home is always encouraged! This requires access to an instrument, and members are encouraged to purchase their own instruments. The group setting involves all players, so that sets it apart from strumming a guitar at home alone.

What aspects of Ambient Orchestras could be taken up by any music therapist? Teacher? Musician? Carers?

The ensemble playing aspect. You can get a great band sound out of a banjo, synthesizer and a ballon! Seriously, we use lots of ‘kitchen-sink’ style instruments, and in facilitating an environment dedicated to listening and respect for one-another, the results can be wonderful. It takes time, and even then doesn’t always work, but it offers an alternative to a more ‘one-way’ exchange, where, for example an individual may be playing guitar or piano while the group sings. This is a great thing to do of course, but Ambient Orchestras is more about making instrumental music as part of a group (with vocals as well!)

Does it require someone with particular training to run a session?

It does help if you have experience working with people with an intellectual disability. Being a musician helps. There is a lot of setting up and technical requirements, so that also requires initial direction.Having patience and being creative in how you might approach, for instance,  assisting an individual who has no sight, is in a wheelchair and only has restricted movement in their left-hand is the most important aspect though. This insight and ability comes with being curious and enthusiastic.

How has your program grown or changed over the last three years?

Over the last three years, Ambient Orchestras has grown from supporting one ensemble in Footscray in Melbourne’s Western suburbs, to supporting six groups across metropolitan Melbourne. The program has become increasingly focused on performance and recording, with at least part of every workshop devoted to an inclusive discussion of what we are working towards whether that be a score for a play, a performance for the opening of an exhibition or a larger scale performance at a community venue . The program has developed over time to accommodate people of all abilities. With experience, I have been able to devise methods for those with 'lower levels of cognitive and physical ability', whether it is a customised enlarged plectrum for guitarists or a mounted rack for percussion for those with limited movement. Collaboration with other musicians has become a focal point of the groups also, with past performances utilising the skill of flautists, erhu players, traditional Chinese fiddle, singers, pianists and a violin and mandolinist.  We have also collaborated with visual artists who painted during a performance at the Art of Difference Festival '09, dancers at the Errington Community Centre, and a bagpiper at the Delahey Community Centre’s mid-year concert.

What's the most challenging part of running Ambient Orchestras?

The ongoing challenge is to encourage the musicians to listen to each other, and base what or when you play on what others are doing. Listening is the difference between a musician and a technician, regardless of ability.Working with people with a profound intellectual disability can be a challenge sometimes, but this is often where the treasures are found. We have a young man in one of the groups who doesn’t rely on words to communicate and requires a high level of personal support. He often vocalizes loudly, whether joyous or upset, and in the group he has an echo-drenched vocal microphone to express himself. His family came along to a public performance and were astounded that a noise they considered disturbing within a community setting was being received with applause and hoots of support!

It was your idea and leadership which got this going: how do you make it grow and sustain it?

Networking with other community organizations is vital and funding support from organizations such as Music. Play For Life is very helpful. Focusing on an inter-ability approach is becoming more and more important, and fun. For example, two of the Ambient Orchestras groups are collaborating regularly with community choirs, making new friends, forging new artistic potential. This opens up increased performance opportunity which gives Ambient Orchestras and its members a wider and less ‘disability-specific’ scope.We want to increase community participation opportunities for the members and make recording more of a priority. We also plan to expand the Ambient Orchestras workshops into schools, workplaces and aged care facilities to make it a bigger part of the whole community and to create opportunities for all these groups to network, collaborate and perform.

Tell us how you will use the prize money to advance music making in your community.

The money has enabled two of the groups based in Melbourne’s west (Joy. St. & Rainbow on My Wrist) to meet and rehearse weekly, forge artistic and social networks, buy much needed equipment such as microphones and software and raise the profile of their bands. The assistance from Music: Play for Life has been invaluable and we thank them warmly!

You've had a commitment from the beginning to provide these profoundly disabled people performance opportunities for their music, why?

Because it is soul music in its truest form. I have been a working musician as well as a disability support worker for over fifteen years, and long to have the restraint, sensitivity and touch of many of the Ambient Orchestras members I work with. Aside from believing that community inclusion is a basic human right, I feel that the music created by the various groups is reflective of a societal and cultural move towards recognizing strengths rather than weaknesses.  The strengths of the musicians I work are undeniable, and if you come along to a gig and surrender to their sound, you will be moved!

John’s tips and ideas.

  1. Locate your passion and create accordingly
  2. Network
  3. Be participant focused
  4. Ask for help!
  5. Take a break every now and again