In the latest instalment of our Musical Journey series, we speak to the dynamic and multi-talented harpist Alice Giles. Alice, who currently performs as part of the Adventures in Antarctica ensemble for Musica Viva In Schools alongside fellow harpist Liena Lacey, discusses her first brush with MVIS, the development of Adventures in Antarctica, and her passion for music education.
When did you first become aware of Musica Viva In Schools?
During my 2011 Australian Antarctic Division Fellowship trip to Antarctica, I wrote a blog, and some of the best interaction was with school kids. It was clear that they were inspired and engaged imaginatively with all aspects of Antarctica. On my return, I knew that taking a program into schools that had similar concepts to my main Alice in Antarctica show was a really high priority for me. But I didn't know how to go about doing this until a few years later when I discovered the MVIS program.
What was the inspiration for Adventures in Antarctica?
I wanted to be able to show the children that music was a wonderful, adventurous way to experience the world, and give them the affirmation that an appreciation of beauty through nature, science and the arts could be integrated as one. In addition, I was very excited to have an opportunity to introduce the harp as a strong, versatile instrument to so many children before they adopted the usual stereotypes of it.
For me, the great thing about the MVIS program was the support that went into creating something suitable for schools: my original traditional performance-based show was transformed into an interactive, fun, and highly educational experience.
Creating something along with others, including my two colleagues on the show Liena Lacey and Moran Wiesel, was a joy.
Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like to debut Adventures in Antarctica for MVIS? Has the program changed much since it first toured?
The trial runs were so daunting and exhausting! We had so much to learn about managing the energy in the room, how to handle interaction so that it was a fully integrated part of the show but didn't interrupt the flow, how to respond to different groups. After each show we debriefed and adapted, mostly in subtle ways involving streamlining our dialogue, but which make a huge difference. We were just getting comfortable with it all when Covid-19 struck, and we had to start from scratch for the online shows!
You’ve had quite the history with MVA. In addition to your MVIS work Adventures in Antarctica, you’ve appeared in our Melbourne Coffee Concert series, the Musica Viva Festival, and in one of our Sessions concerts. How has this breadth of experience with the organisation informed your MVIS work, and vice versa?
I think what I love most is that there is the same attitude to quality and musical integrity regardless of audience or format. So the schools project felt in essence no different to playing in a festival or major series in a major concert hall -- the vision of music being at the forefront with no 'dumbing down' because it is for children. There is also same level of professional support behind everything that happens at MVA. It's truly unique and special.
What have been some of your fondest experiences with students over the years?
Some fond experiences have been the reactions to Nigel Westlake's "Beneath the Midnight Sun" - we've had children put up their hand during question time to tell us this made them want to cry because it was so beautiful; or singing the sea shanty "A Roving" with a roomful of children joining in the chorus in full voice -- and thinking of how my grandfather would have enjoyed this as it was his favourite to sing in Antarctica 100 years ago; also the improvisations we do from the ideas of how the children feel in Antarctica, which can sometimes be quite personal.
What are some of the common questions you receive from students?
We are interested that they have so many really observant questions about the harps, about how they work, why we have coloured strings, why they look different, were they really in Antarctica and so on. How long we've been playing and how expensive the harps are also common questions (for which we've worked out some tricky answers!).
Have you learnt anything from the students you’ve performed for?
Yes -- the origin of the word harp! Someone had researched this on their own before the show and I had no idea!
I've also been able to re-tap into my original place of happiness in performing music -- there is such a beautiful lack of stress in this experience for me, after years of performing on the concert stage -- just the pure joy of making music and sharing beauty, and I remind myself of this feeling in all my performances now.
Why are you so passionate about music education, and why is it important?
Music is just a fundamental part of any full and balanced education. Unfortunately for our society, it has been gradually sidelined as a separate, optional, hobby-type activity. Like all educational areas, music needs to be introduced at the earliest stage or it is not absorbed and integrated naturally. I was lucky to have music in my life from my family from my earliest memories, as we all played together at home. I'm passionate about encouraging children to think of music as something everyone can (and should) do, so that it is not only entertainment but part of life.