Melbourne International Jazz Festival – Claire Cross on taking her turn
Claire Cross and the band rolled into Mildura and Ballarat on a mission: to find, nurture and inspire young musicians and give them a window into the world of a professional musician.
Bassist and educator Cross is the Leader of the inaugural Tomorrow is My Turn(TIMT) program created by the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. The program aims to give an emerging female* leader in jazz the platform to advocate for greater diversity in musical leadership and to engage with the next generation of leaders by visiting them where so many musicians start – in their high school music room.
“Growing up I was lucky to be a part of a really amazing music program in North West Tasmania,” says Cross of her own musical education. “I have played music since I was in primary school, and it’s the only thing I’ve ever truly wanted to do I think.”
As she moved into high school, Cross encountered “one or two teachers…who saw [she] was interested in music and seemed to want to nurture that,” and has gone on to do the same for other young musicians. As part of the TIMT initiative, Cross and her hand-picked band will visit regional and metropolitan Victorian schools to run improvisation workshops.
Cross’s approach to shepherding high school students through what for many is their first improvisation experience is one she has honed over years of working with young musicians. The group dynamic can be tricky and nerves are the first hurdle to overcome.
“Improvising in front of a group can be a really daunting experience for a lot of people, so I set the tone early on,” says Cross. The trick is to create a safe space where everyone can participate without judgement. She focusses on building a rapport quickly, making jokes and leaning into the relaxed atmosphere in the room – “we’re all here to just give something a go. What’s the worst thing that could possibly happen, right?”
“I talk to the group as if we are ‘all in a band’, which means listening respectfully to each other all the time, and engaging with the materials at all times so that we are being a good ‘band member’ and contributing.”
Cross says starting small works. Confidence needs to be built before the group can really get involved so she starts with fun and interactive rhythmic activities to break the ice. Call and response “works a real treat” and is usually the first activity and she uses basic materials to engage students at all levels and challenge them in different ways.
“I make sure that I choose material to improvise with that is easy enough for everyone to access by ear, so no one is checking out because they can’t get it.
I find that working through simple processes most people can find the courage to try and improvise. You kind of get them to improvise without them realising that’s what they are doing…which makes it a bit less of a stressful experience.”
And sometimes, it just takes a little time. The shyness dissipates once everyone is on board.
“By the time you’ve gone around the group once and everyone has responded and maybe made some funny ‘mistakes’, people get a lot more confident and take some musical risks. Realising that nothing bad can happen from trying to improvise is often the thing that makes people more willing to try.”
What is sometimes lacking in the traditional music curriculum is performance opportunities and access to working musicians. This is especially the case for geographically isolated regional students. TIMT offers students both of these things. They meet a working musician, are offered the opportunity to perform with her and can attend a performance by Cross and the TIMT band at MIJF.
“A lot of what I do as a teacher involves me gently supporting and encouraging these young people to take musical risks or to give new musical concepts a go – to constantly challenge them. Watching the confidence of a young musician build through practice and performance is inspiring, and often reminds you, that you too are still on that same journey.”
One of the reasons TIMT was put together by MIJF was to address the gender imbalance in the sector. By modelling diverse leadership to young musicians, TIMT aims to paint it as the norm, rather than the exception.
“Young musicians need to see a place for themselves on the stage and in the music community – they need to see women* leading bands, owning the stage and setting the agenda,” says Cross. It’s this visibility that she hopes will start to shift the demographic of the next generation in jazz.
I’d love to see more women moving through high school into tertiary music education, especially as instrumentalists. I’d also love to keep seeing more young emerging musicians finding new and interesting ways to connect with audiences, to keep jazz evolving.”
Her own career has been shaped by the women in her life.
“I think that I am currently lucky to be surrounded by a group of women in Melbourne who are both incredible, hard-working musicians and inspiring people,” Cross says of the musical community she’s found a home in. Mentorship is another part of a change in music’s leaders, one that she’s actively a part of. “[It] provides pathways directly and indirectly,” she says.
“Mentoring can show young musicians an idea of ‘what they could be’, and provide opportunities to young musicians in order for them to develop musically and professionally.”
But mentorship is nothing without greater representation.
“Everyone is responsible for contributing towards a more diverse and inclusive community – not just women!
It’s been said over and over again, and I’ll say it again – it’s hard to be it, if you can’t see it.”
The Tomorrow is My Turn program is supported by Creative Partnerships Australia through Plus 1, an annual funding program making creative initiatives possible. However, to deliver TIMT, we need your help.
Claire Cross will perform Into Light, a piece of music developed for Tomorrow is My Turn.
Get your tickets here