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  • Writer's pictureKunal Mutreja

THIS MUSICAL WORLD: Interview with Erica Rasmussen

Interview with: Erica Rasmussen

Interview by: Mandy Stefanakis

It is extremely important to me to ensure we are empowering our students to understand themselves as music makers and creators as much as music presenters. They really are the composers of the future.’ – Erica Rasmussen

Adaptations of independent music programs initially inspired by the El Sistema approach provide fascinating insights into the individual directions such programs take. Based at Laverton P – 12 in Melbourne, Crashendo is unique in this regard. I spoke with its Director, Erica Rasmussen, about the program.

Crashendo is partially based on the El Sistema approach. However, you’ve adapted that approach in a range of ways. Can you talk about those adaptations and the reasoning behind them?

Crashendo was originally inspired by El Sistema but, yes, we have made some adaptations over the ten years to suit our particular educational environment, the background of the students, and probably most significantly in a fairly organic way – the program reflects the various teaching methods and styles of the teaching artists (past and present). My approach is collaborative and I like to think that I have allowed for each teaching artist to bring their unique experiences to the program, and these have helped shape the direction of our program. I have worked in a variety of schools and have been lucky to have a number of mentors through my own teaching journey that have helped me shape my views on how to run Crashendo most effectively and sustainably, and how to provide a safe, engaging learning environment for our students. Although, I know I’m still learning!

Ensuring that students are encouraged in their musical creativity is really important to you and seems a quite unique aspect of Crashendo. Can you talk about:

. How this developed . Why it is important to you . How the students respond to this aspect of the program . What the challenges are in sustaining it.

Yes, it is extremely important to me to ensure we are empowering our students to understand themselves as music makers and creators as much as music presenters. They really are the composers of the future, and we should be encouraging them to think of themselves as such!

There is always so much positive feedback from the students when we do composition or improvisation projects. We have worked with sound artist/composer Nat Grant who wrote music together with our students and we were able to publish the music in full scores. There was so much pride amongst the students in regard to what they had achieved. The feedback included things such as ‘during my experience I felt more brave and amazing’, or ‘I loved learning new sounds’, or ‘trying to compose a song was fun and interesting’, and even ‘a dream come true!’.

We have worked with Play on Philly, an El Sistema program in Philadelphia USA, to exchange student-written picture scores. We performed and recorded their picture compositions, and sent them over, then they returned the favour by performing and recording our picture scores. It was a fabulous musical exchange, all centred around student composition. In the feedback from the students, they enjoyed creating their own music, being creative with it in the visual sense, and then being able to use it as a way to connect with other students their age on the other side of the world.

There are just so many benefits to including composition and improvisation into ensemble programs – creativity, team building, sense of ownership, individual and collective pride, independence, sense of identity, negotiation, collaboration, increased skills on the instrument, development of extended techniques, the list just goes on.

There can be challenges in sustaining the inclusion of composition in our program. I do consult a lot with my team and some of the feedback they give me is – the levels between the students varies too much, it’s too hard to learn music in the ensemble setting without individual lessons as it is, their technique is not at the level it needs to be, it’s hard to manage the challenging behaviours of the students, not all the students can practice at home etc etc. I absolutely understand and agree that these are tough challenges that we deal with all the time with our program. But can we change the conversation around? Can we flip it? Instead of, ‘We don’t have the time to do composition because the students need to focus on their technique to be able to play the pieces,’ can we say, ‘Let’s get them to create their own music in order to learn about technique.’ Why can’t composition and improvisation be a catalyst for conversation about technique? For a discussion about keys? Why can’t they make up their own technical exercises? Maybe the negotiating required to write a group piece will help with behavioural issues? There are so many possibilities and I believe composition and improvisation sessions could only help with the challenges we face with student learning.

Erica Rasmussen performs at an event in which audience members responded visually to the ensemble’s music.

How have you adapted the program in regard to the restrictions of COVID?

We took Crashendo online for two of the lockdowns. I was impressed with the participation rate, especially as our students faced many challenges in regard to technology, access to devices and home learning space. The parents were really grateful for the online lessons, as they acknowledged how important the music was for their child’s well-being and continued engagement with learning.

I suppose the most disappointing thing has been no public concerts. But we are having our first one again on 8th September – this is really exciting! For the students and the teachers!

What are your visions for the future of Crashendo?

Definitely to have more composition and improvisation! I would like to see much more student-led initiatives and to have the opportunity to have guest artists come and work with the students. This not only invigorates the students, but gives new ideas to our teachers. I would also like to see more collaboration with music programs in other schools or settings. And for our students to get out in the community again. It would be great to access some regular professional development for the teaching team too. I think this would be a great asset to our program.

It is also really important to keep Crashendo sustainable. We are fully reliant on philanthropic support and private donations. I want to keep this program going for as long as possible.

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