Subtle Moments – Scenes on a Life’s Journey by Bruce Grant (Monash University Publishing): An Occasional Review

 

Subtle Moments

To dip into the realm of the autobiography is something your correspondent should do more often, particularly if it can uncover thoughtful and interesting reads of the calibre of the work of journalist, foreign correspondent, author, diplomat, arts critic and government advisor Bruce Grant. Indeed he has been all these things since his boyhood in country West Australia in the late nineteen twenties and early thirties. This was clearly a time when people lived in their societal silos: protestant, catholic, country, city, Pommy, Ozzie, when differences were settled mostly by poking out ones metaphorical tongue. Although the major part of the book is devoted to a working life, one of the great joys is reading of the early years and the influences and societal factors which played a role in Grant’s personal development. The simplicity yet harshness of country life, its demands of attention to the uncontrollable or the unpredictable is beautifully portrayed, while at the same time pointing to the early development of a keen observational ability and a sense of the spiritual, qualities essential to the role of a journalist and writer. A scholarship to Perth Modern School was undoubtedly a factor in the development of strong academic skills. At the same time Grant’s story of his handling of differences with the headmaster which led to an early departure from the school underlined an early response to the strictures of the overly conservative and hidebound attitudes of a country yet to throw off the colonial cringe.

In describing the long arc of Grant’s life, there are some key elements to which he holds strongly and discusses at length: the challenge of the swing from a British protective embrace to a United States embrace, the up-ending of the role of the state and its subjects, the issue of developing a useful voice as a middle power at a time of changing power structures around the world and particularly in Asia, as well as the growth of the movement for a republic. It is a tribute to Grant’s skill as a writer that he makes these themes interesting, particularly through stories of his working relationships with men of influence in the newspaper world and government. Similarly his abiding love for Indonesia has been a strong influence in both his life and work. The book is a reminder that Grant was amongst the first to recognise the importance of the Australian/Indonesian relationship. But more than recognise, he also demonstrates his understanding of the country, its challenges and contradictions.

The chapter devoted to India is particularly interesting. Grant’s observations, whether personal or professional, are perceptive and still of relevance today as the relationship between India and Australia reaches new intensities. Not be ignored however are the comments about Sir John Kerr which bear witness to Grant’s understanding of his fellow human beings. Clearly he sensed in the man some serious failings. Then the events of The Dismissal prompted him to leave India so as to have a more active role in steering the political future of Australia. This had perhaps faint echoes of the decision to leave Perth Modern School early: a sense of carefully judging the ethical and moral issues at a time of significant change.

On a more personal level, the autobiography portrays an outgoing and personable individual, not a dry intellectual but one with a wry sense of humour. The range of friends and acquaintances referenced is encyclopaedic. Photos undoubtedly show a handsome man, not without sex appeal. Grant is clearly attracted to highly intelligent women. He talks about what the readers must assume are his four great loves, his first wife Enid, Bambi Shmith (Patricia Tuckwell who became Countess of Harewood) , his second wife Joan (nee Pennell) and Ratih Hardjono whom he also married. Grant writes sensitively about these relationships in what is, to your correspondent, an important element of the autobiography. It is obvious from the latter part of the book, where there is a natural ending to the arc of professional life and the writing becomes more like a series of essays, that Grant valued his family above all and has managed to maintain a homogeneous and devoted extended family notwithstanding the complexity of his marital affairs.

In his final musings, which perhaps ramble at too great a length, Grant seems to express some sadness that the work he undertook to guide thinking on Australia’s potential as a middle power with special status in Asia has had limited traction, with politicians now more interested in narrow domestic quarrels.

Apart from those with an interest in the trajectory of Australia’s foreign policy over the 20th century this insightful (and very well indexed) book is a must read for young diplomats and older politicians so they may better understand their role in the future development of a truly independent voice for Australia.

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Fluxus, Dick Higgins and Danger Music: A Couple of Hours at First Draft, Woolloomooloo (@firstdraft_)

There is a nondescript “flatiron” building at the bottom of Riley Street, Woolloomooloo next to the PCYC. It is an uninviting building which until recently didn’t even carry signage to alert passers by to its purpose. Since 2014 it has been the home of First Draft an artist run creative space with a thirty-year history around Sydney.

Last night your correspondent wandered down for a glass of wine, a free sausage and some performance art. It was a fascinating evening. The prompt was an email indicating one Geoffrey Gartner would be performing Dick Higgins’ Danger Music. Gartner I knew from his work playing contemporary cello. But, at the risk of eliciting contemptuous eye rolling from students of the contemporary, it must be admitted Dick Higgins was not known. Nor the other names and words your correspondent learned last night: Fluxus, George Maciunus, “intermedia”. John Cage? Of course! Everybody has heard of John Cage, but the “Fluxists”, students of Cage formed their own movement which questioned the meaning of music. A glimpse of their approach was delivered in five separate elements plus two displays put on by Liquid Architecture, an organisation for artists working with sound.

The night’s first element was a performance of Dick Higgins’ Lecture Number 4. In this Gartner presented his prepared text, miming and delivering the emotional content through expressive movement, facial expression and timing. Thus, unless the audience member could read lips, the experience was one of a very pure interaction between presenter and individual audience member, each of whom clearly responded in very different ways depending on their own interpretation. At one level it was like being profoundly deaf: with intellectual and didactic content removed, the experience was unsettling. Was it mime without a storyline, or something more sinister? At another level it made your correspondent think of the work of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions which suggests an interesting link between musical performance and oratory. A musician is as much an orator as a barrister or politician, having to sway the audience as much by communicating appropriate emotional content as with inspiring words and music. As referenced in an earlier blog Renaissance orators were taught a special language of the body (stance, hands, feet) along with the tonal qualities and facial expressions necessary to deliver great emotional impact. Here, however, the words and music were absent, demanding even greater skills of the orator. Geoffrey Gartner’s performance was exquisitely crafted. There was not a sound except for occasional laughter (humour was probably not intended). But the audience was entranced. Was there some influence here from John Cage? Perhaps. Higgins was a member of Cage’s experimental composition class in 1969.

It is instructive to read some of the unheard words to get some context for the evening. Gartner had written “Danger Music focuses on words; it focuses on the voice… The good voice. The bad voice. Your voice. My voice, issuing from me as it speaks to me, doubling back to be heard by me – both me and always beyond me. When we lose the voice and set it upon words, we make a space for listening, between the deed and the attention: a place that’s dangerous, where sound might smuggle itself in.”

The second element was delivered by Tasmanian sound artist Andrew Harper. Standing in a circle of found objects (portable radios, speakers and the like linked by amplifier) Harper developed a sound aura, starting with his own non verbal sounds then adding, element by element, additional pieces, religious texts recorded on the radios, which slowly built in intensity to a Tower of Babel like conclusion. The raucous whole was the antithesis of the preceding work, while still addressing the context of the voice as music in a different frame.

Element three brought Geoffrey Gartner back, still in white tie and tails, to search, again silently, for something hidden. Eventually a colourful guitar was found in the rafters. Placed on a plinth, various hammers were selected to “play” the guitar. This was not a violent deconstruction: only strings were stroked by hammer claws and then broken. The stroking sounds were soft and belied the violent nature of hammers, while breaking strings brought occasional intensity. Eventually an exploration inside the guitar produced a notice, a work title, tying the wordless process to the written word.

Danger Music

During intermission audience members were invited to participate in the execution of two works. One, a bowl of cheese squares and a pile of fresh eggs enable participants to don plastic gloves and experience the sound and feel of smashing eggs on the table. While acknowledging there may be music and emotion in this sort of madman’s kitchen, your correspondent was left bemused. The second work, Danger Music Number 12, however, presented a clearer opportunity to create with large score sheets and felt pens available to produce silent text scores in the manner of each “composer” individually.

Danger Music 12

The penultimate element was a monologue about smoke. Standing in a smoky room with a small smoke generator emitting puffs at the whim of the speaker, it seemed as if the intent was to unsettle, perhaps even to invoke fear. It worked less well than the other elements and the link to Fluxus was difficult to identify.

Finally Gartner, in a performance of great intensity, descended a flight of stairs, filling a narrow stairwell with wordless noise. Was it the howling of a madman? The descent of the demented into hell? Or simply another soundscape? Music to a devil’s ears perhaps, but whatever the audience took from the performance it was clearly unsettling and reactions were very individual: amazement, embarrassed laughter, compassion, fear. Indeed that stairwell was, for a few moments “a place that’s dangerous.”

Your correspondent exited into the cold night air determined to learn more of these Fluxists and their non-music.

 

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Whither The Australia Ensemble? (@AusEnsemble)

A couple of years ago your correspondent noticed something strange about photos of the Australia Ensemble. It looked like a clever marketing ploy to obfuscate the fact there was less product in the box. But was there? Well, yes and no. While earlier photos showed seven highly respected musicians who made up the Ensemble, current photos show, well, seven musicians. It’s just that now the Artistic Chair appears in the photos alongside the instrumentalists who now number, it seems, only six. (Artistic Chair? Who came up with this abominable title? It could only come from a university. But I digress). Alert readers who are sufficiently long in the tooth will know that the Australia Ensemble has had seven players on contract ever since a wise Professor Roger Covell convinced the bean counters at the University of New South Wales to contract a second violinist, one Dimity Hall. The Ensemble went from strength to strength. The Australia Ensemble, which was started by clarinettist Murray Khouri along with said Roger Covell, has always had a clarinettist. It still does, doesn’t it? Well, again yes and no. No clarinettist appears in the Ensemble’s group photos. The job has been relegated to that of “Associate Artist”. What, your correspondent wonders, does this mean? It certainly means he does not warrant inclusion in Ensemble photos. Perhaps he has a lesser contract, or at least is contracted at less money. But what is the difference between him and, say, the many other fine artists who come to play with the Ensemble when a horn, oboe, bassoon or double bass is required? The term is worrying too. It is a relic from a long while ago when it was used to cover the poor guy working away on the piano while Dame Nellie let fly or Heifetz belted out the Kreutzer. Modern promoters tend to give all partners more or less equal billing.

Be all that as it may, the Australia Ensemble website says the ensemble has “seven core [instrumental] positions”. It seems, however, that some are more core than others.

This lengthy preamble will serve to set the scene for a cry for change. The Australia Ensemble, managed by the Music Performance Unit at the University of New South Wales, this week sent out a survey to subscribers to seek their input on matters concerning the Ensemble. Your correspondent will respond, but takes the opportunity to make some broader observations.

In 2004 the Ensemble celebrated a remarkable achievement: its twenty-fifth anniversary and 150th subscription concert. A history, written by Professor Covell, was published covering an active quarter century of music making. At that time your correspondent was a member of the Ensemble’s Advisory Committee, and in that capacity penned a paper titled “Going for Gold” with the purpose of encouraging some thought about the Ensemble’s future. Why, you may well ask? For starters there were changes happening at senior levels in the University heirachy, funding cuts were under way and universities were being pressured to show their research credentials. Spending money on a classical music ensemble would surely be called into question. Indeed it was not long thereafter that the Macquarie Trio was dumped by Macquarie University, following a change in Vice Chancellor and cuts to funding. Happily for the Australia Ensemble, the University of New South Wales was a little more accommodating. But the need for a new strategic direction for the Ensemble was overlooked.

In its early years the Ensemble had a stellar overseas touring record. From 1984 to 2000 there were only two years (1987 and 1991) when no overseas touring was undertaken. More than $400,000 of Government funding went towards subsidising this touring program. But notwithstanding the connections and status that such a program had brought, touring came to a standstill. The funding landscape had changed from an active program funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to one morphing to an Australia Council driven model. The objectives remained similar but the demands on management changed radically. Where previously an Australian international touring agenda had been managed by Musica Viva on behalf of DFAT, the scene was changing to one where art managers were more and more required to seek international touring support through the Australia Council, other funding bodies and indeed individuals. For whatever reason, the Australia Ensemble stopped international touring. For the record, your correspondent did enquire, some years ago, about the Australia Ensemble’s attitude to international touring. Musica Viva reported having sent an International Market Development Questionnaire to the Ensemble’s management some years previously. No response was ever received.

It was in this environment that the “Going for Gold” paper raised some issues: a changing market where new entrants potentially presented competitive threats and the need to be seen to be relevant, perhaps through involvement in research or other special projects, to a university with ambitions as a centre for research excellence. Was it sufficient to perform a six concert subscription series in Kensington, with associated lunchtime concerts and workshops during concert weeks? Perhaps a higher profile was needed in the new millennium? At the time there were only a few signs of competitive change. Omega Ensemble was new and not particularly impressive; the Tankstream and Flinders Quartets were young; TinAlley would come and go and come again; the Australian Haydn Ensemble was yet to be formed; Ironwood was nowhere to be seen, and the Australian String Quartet was going through a string of management and personnel issues. But the competitive environment was undoubtedly changing. A move to develop a closer relationship between the Ensemble and the Sydney Conservatorium was rebuffed by conservatorium management. And so nothing changed.

But of course a lot changed. The Omega Ensemble found its feet and not only developed a significant following at City Recital Hall but also added additional elements to its concert programs such as lunch time events. The dumped Macquarie Trio morphed into Selby and Friends. A raft of new chamber ensembles appeared, including some with the cream of Sydney’s players. Contemporary ensembles such as Ensemble Offspring began to move into the main stream by dint of hard work and innovative artistic management. The Verbrugghen Ensemble was formed within the Conservatorium and impressed immediately with programming that included challenging works such as Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies. The Australian Bach Akademie was formed and attracted more than 300 audience members to its first Sydney concert. Even the Australian World Orchestra started programming chamber music concerts.

In this rapidly changing environment, what did the Australian Ensemble do? Well, they continued to do what they had done well for years: put on six subscription concerts a year at the University of New South Wales and deliver six lunchtime concerts. But even the six workshops eventually morphed into something different. Master classes it seems were easier to manage. There was some talk at one stage of twilight events. But of this nothing has been heard recently. On the plus side, the programming by the Australia Ensemble remained well structured and interesting with good attention to new works and Australian composers. Indeed one of the great legacies of the Ensemble is the catalogue of works which have been commissioned over the years for the Ensemble. Recordings were made, although again mostly in the past, with only a couple produced since 2000 and nothing since 2010. The mantle of the finest Australian chamber ensemble had surely slipped a long way.

Through these years there was a change in artistic direction. When Roger Covell retired a strange decision was taken to seek an external artistic director. Well, not quite an artistic director. The artists being all extremely competent and well versed in their field, needed it seemed, a new collaborator, an “Artistic Chair” to be chairperson in their artistic deliberations. Why a group of seven mature professionals could not themselves manage their artistic direction was never explained. A new Artistic Chair, composer Paul Stanhope, was appointed who has steered a subtle change in programming. There has, however, been no change to the role of the Ensemble in the Sydney chamber music scene, a role which has diminished in the face of rampant competition by other ensembles of quality.

Why the Australian Ensemble has not pursued a more active role in Sydney’s, nay Australia’s, musical life remains moot. Lesser ensembles have built up impressive groups of financial supporters. (Just look at what the Australian Haydn Ensemble has achieved in a relatively short time frame). Why has it not sought to be an ambassador for Australian culture to our near neighbours, or to develop some multi faceted projects around elements of Australia’s great musical heritage. One reason always trotted out in the past was that scheduling was always impossible. The lie to this is that today the Australian String Quartet can operate with a leader who is at the same time concertmaster of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The Verbrugghen Ensemble counts the concertmaster of the Sydney Symphony as its leader, and, perhaps most tellingly, the Goldner String Quartet, all of whom are members of the Australia Ensemble, seems to be able to tour internationally and be an active participant in Musica Viva programming and other festivals throughout the year.

The formation of the Goldner String Quartet in 1995 clearly had mixed effects on the Australia Ensemble. Its formation was encouraged by the late Ken Tribe, an astute observer of artistic merit. Roger Covell on the other hand was, reportedly, not enthusiastic, perhaps because he feared the Quartet might detract from the Ensemble from which it sprang. Your correspondent would argue that Ensemble management missed an opportunity to ensure the Quartet was seen as truly embedded in the Ensemble so that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Sadly that did not happen.

Nothing has been done to broaden the Ensemble’s appeal by breaking out of the University and performing in different venues around Sydney and indeed Australia. There seems to be no will to give the Ensemble a new focus in terms of repertoire or programming which will differentiate it in the eyes of today’s audiences. Its performance format remains stuck in the nineteen fifties. Players say not a word. Sure, they communicate well through their music making but something different is needed to excite the modern audience. Why do they not appear in the Utzon Room, City Recital Hall, the Concourse Chatswood or in the raft of other smaller venues other groups use to produce wonderful music and attract new and younger audiences? Why have they not appeared in recent years at any of the major festivals?

Like all universities, the University of New South Wales is under financial pressure. It does not have a music faculty of significant stature. It is a university keen to reinforce its status as a leader in research. The risk is that the Ensemble may be seen as no longer relevant to its Alma Mater. The clear implication is that, if it is to have a future, the Australia Ensemble needs to demonstrate a readiness to reinvigorate its declining status and show not only to Sydney, but also Australia and the world that it is an artistic force to be reckoned with. It used to have that mantle. It has the musicians to achieve this. Failure to change will see an almost certain demise, either by slow death or by university fiat. The Ensemble’s history and quality suggests it is worth keeping. But not in its present state of torpor.

Posted in Arts, Chamber Music, Goldner String Quartet | Tagged | 2 Comments

.@MusicaVivaAU releases its 2017 programs

It is the time of year when all and sundry make their bids for your subscription dollars. Today it is Musica Viva’s turn. Your correspondent will leave it to others to have their say on the detail of the 2017 program. The overall picture does however beg some comment.

In what is a high quality, yet fairly standard, MVA lineup for 2017 (you know them: Angela Hewitt, Takacs and Pacifica Quartets, Sitkovetsky Trio, Aleksander Madzar – this time with cellist Nicolas Altstaedt) there are two rare gems. Lovers of the contemporary will applaud the inclusion of Eighth Blackbird in the International Season. Theirs is the genre of music and performance more likely to be found in festivals. Your correspondent well remembers a wonderful concert at the Sydney Opera House a few years ago when Australian flautist Tim Munro was their co-artistic director. Energetic, intense, thought provoking in their variety are descriptors remembered from that occasion. If concert halls around the country do not have to put up “House Full” signs for this tour it will be a stark message about the nature of Australian concertgoers. The second gem is one cut from a very different stone. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, making its first “full tour” to Australia, will bring joy and anticipation to the hearts of Baroque music lovers and surely others if Gramaphone Magazine’s comment about Artistic Director Rachel Podger is to be believed: There is probably no more inspirational musician working today than Podger”. Hyperbole aside, this ensemble’s inclusion in the program is yet another feather in MVA’s fairly feathery headgear.

2017 is also the year for another Musica Viva Festival. This promises to be another varied event drawing on some top international talent: think Amy Dickson, Pinchas Zukerman, Amanda Forsyth, the Elias Quartet and Lambert Orkis. Much stands out, but suffice it to make two comments. Young and early career musicians need to come and sit at the feet of Lambert Orkis. He is undoubtedly one of the great ensemble musicians around and, what’s more, he has the communication capability to pass on his skills in both masterclass and performance. He is yet another gem in MVA’s firmament. And how will the festival conclude? A big finish is always needed. Happily MVA have eschewed programming the ever loved Mendelssohn Octet, and passed the challenge to young South Australian composer Jakub Jankowski whose String Octet will get its world premiere on April 23 to conclude the festival. Congratulations to Jankowski who is not long out of the Elder Conservatorium and, interestingly, has not yet made it into the Australian Music Centre’s listings.

Your correspondent must conclude with a “more in sorrow than in anger” moment. MVA’s ensemble programming for the 2017 Sydney Coffee Concert series has been handed, once again, to the Goldner Quartet. It is not that they are not, arguably, Australia’s finest quartet, but they get a lot of airtime. Think Townsville, Huntington, MVA Festival, and Australia Ensemble for starters. In your correspondent’s view the joys of the Wednesday morning series in Sydney lies in its variety and the opportunity to hear less well known, often young, vibrant talent, like MVA have programmed for the Melbourne Coffee Concert series. Sure, the Sydney series has some repertoire variety and a smattering of Australian works. Piers Lane and Umberto Clerici are thrown into the mix. But for me, after my coffee and undoubtedly excellent cake, Wednesday mornings are not the time for Beethoven Opus 59 quartets or even the mighty Schubert C Major Octet.

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Nothing New Under the Sun (at least not in tax and politics)

Your correspondent does not generally comment on the politics of the day. Wouldn’t want the trolls to get restless. But the current brouhaha over the States taking on some income tax responsibility jogged my memory: did not the inestimable Sir Robert Garran pen a stanza on this very subject? Well, yes.

Are Prime Minister Turnbull and Treasurer Morrison students of history when it comes to considering passing taxation rights to the States? They are, if history is any guide, proposing measures which will again not be accepted. In 1934 Prime Minister Lyons called a Constitutional Conference. Amongst the matters for consideration were financial items. According to “Prosper the Commonwealth” by said Sir Robert, a man who knew a bit about Federation, the Constitution and the early years of the Commonwealth: “All States were dissatisfied with their dependence on Commonwealth grants….. Some States suggested that the Commonwealth could vacate the field of income tax, but when the Commonwealth called their bluff and seriously offered this, there was a marked cooling off. The States have never been blind to the political convenience of letting the Commonwealth have the unpopular task of imposing taxation whilst the States enjoy the privilege of spending the money. Their complaints, therefore…..were seldom pressed home. In the end nothing came of the proposal.”

Except this stanza:

We thank you for the offer of the cow,

But we can’t milk, and so we answer now-

We answer with a loud resounding chorus:

Please keep the cow, and do the milking for us.

One R G Casey, whom alert readers may recall was another astute fellow,  Commonwealth Treasurer at the time, is understood to have retorted that the stanza was the only positive result from the Conference.

It seems there is still much to learn from history, and perhaps even doggerel.

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Emma Ayres in Afghanistan: Another Story of Passion and Generosity

Emma Ayres’ recent interview on ABC TV’s “The Weekly” with Charlie Pickering has been roundly admired and praised. Your correspondent was as delighted as anyone to see the interview and hear Emma’s stories. There is another wonderful story of Emma’s passion along with some collaborative philanthropy which deserves also to be told. The program for last August’s Sydney Musica Viva Coffee Concert reported this story:

“For Emma Ayres, life is music. Whether riding her bike to raise money for charity, presenting popular radio shows or playing cello, Emma’s passion for music is always present. And Emma is on a mission to share music with the world.

Music is life for John Strutt, too. A long-time commissioner of new works and a patron of the arts, John’s embrace of music is as passionate as Emma’s. It’s no surprise that – following their meeting at a music festival nine years ago – they became friends; united by a shared sense of humour, a love of people and a heartfelt commitment to a musical future.

These shared qualities and values have found their most powerful expression to date in a new project in Afghanistan, where Emma is now teaching students at Kabul’s National Institute of Music. In a city marred by daily violence and overshadowed by a constant sense of danger, music provides refuge, solace and inspiration to the children who arrive in Emma’s classroom every day.

Excited by this commitment, Emma began her classes but soon recognised that the children’s eagerness to learn was hampered by instruments that were either inadequate, or simply unavailable.

So Emma wrote to John, telling him about the children whose love for music would, with help, blossom. And, with a verve and speed familiar to anyone who knows him, John set about raising money for the children in Kabul. Three months of emails and calls later, and with the help of Doug Glanville at Sydney Strings, a collection of 20 new string instruments (and one glockenspiel from Optimum Percussion) was on its way to Afghanistan.

Emma describes Kabul as a city where – despite everything – music always wins. And today, thanks to the many friends who responded to Emma and John’s appeal, beautiful music is pouring from the windows of the National Institute in Kabul.”

(Quoted with permission from Musica Viva.)

 

 

 

Posted in Music Education, Musica Viva | 3 Comments

Saving the World, One Class at a Time: Thoughts prompted by Richard Gill at the Peggy Glanville Hicks Address

Back in 2007, your correspondent drafted a blog post about teaching music to primary students. The blog never saw the light of day. Or night for that matter. But the issue was placed in intense focus last Monday when Richard Gill gave the 2015 Peggy Glanville Hicks Address. It came as no surprise to the audience that his presentation was challenging. The term “iconoclast” came to mind. He covered a broad spectrum under the general concept of why contemporary music matters. But of course his theme naturally reverted to why all music matters and why it is essential primary school students be given proper music education from trained music teachers. The address will be repeated in Melbourne on Friday 30 October at Deakin Edge, Federation Square. If you have any interest in the future of music, go along:

There was discussion about how best to advocate proper primary music education, and how music is distinctly different from other art forms. Decrying the lack of well trained and inspiring primary school music teachers, Gill pointed to the importance of replication of these skills if worthwhile improvement is to be achieved. He pointed to the National Music Teacher Mentoring Program he had been able to introduce with a minimum funding model which is being delivered through the Australian Youth Orchestra, as well as the work of Musica Viva in Schools.

Not mentioned, but likewise effective in this arena is the work of the Australian Children’s Music Foundation. Your correspondent had some contact with their work back in 2007 through a particularly committed and skilled music teacher friend. As one of only a small band of AMCF teachers at that stage, there was a deal of discussion about how to replicate her work to facilitate on the ground teaching by less qualified teachers in disadvantaged schools. In its execution the ACMF’s efforts have been remarkable in terms of achievement. Schools such as Hillston Primary in western NSW and the Matraville Soldiers Settlement School can be justifiably said to have transformed their music programs with wonderful effect. The following, unedited, report extracts may provide some perspective:-

“There are about 120-140 children in the primary school. Most of these children come from farming families. Children regularly have days off to help on the farm – to put up fences, or to castrate lambs. Many children travel 80 – 100 kilometres to get to school. Music was pretty low on their list of important things. Most children listened to the radio, but had never seen a musical instrument, let alone played one, or learnt about music as a subject.”

“I remember my first visit – no child would really sing. A few girls, but kids told me they hated singing. It was boring. One boy said that he would even do maths, rather than sing.”

But then the ongoing mentoring had its effect: “We gave a little concert to the whole primary school – we played Bach, Copeland, a little Tarantella for cello and piano and a song written by Martin Wesley-Smith. Every question we asked, children knew.

“What’s the name of the highest female voice?”

“Soprano.”

“What’s the name of a pattern that goes over and over again?”

“Ostinato.”

“What are the cello strings made of?”

“Metal – but they used to be catgut!”

These children know their stuff. And they listened – some with open mouths, some with huge grins – but they all listened. Transfixed. No-one wanted to go at the end – so we taught them a two part song in ten minutes. They loved it. All the teachers joined in, all the children sang and sang – big country boys in year six loving it as much as the ‘good girls’ in year three.”

“Year 5, I was told, was the naughtiest class. It has far more boys in it than girls, and a handful of children are really struggling with very elementary reading. ALL of these children were fantastic – they read rhythm, they sang, they played chimes, they played kazoos, they waited patiently when others were struggling, and they were really careful with the cello. One teacher said afterwards ‘I have known some of these children since kindergarten. I have never seen some of those boys so engaged.’

And then perhaps the most telling comment of all: “The staff are teaching music. [One] music teacher (who also teaches maths) was telling me that the staff morale has really improved – because they can see the happiness that this programme is bringing these children.”

This all begs the question why teaching young children to sing together, hit cans with sticks together, or create new music together actually changes anything. The answer surely lies in the emotionally collaborative nature of music. Children who may struggle with reading or mathematical concepts find, in a collective, that they can indeed sing in tune, beat out a rhythm, understand simple notation and creative processes. What this does for them is build their self-esteem, focus their efforts on collaborating with others and the natural disciplines this encourages. And bring that elusive reward: happiness. These are wonderful building blocks for a community and of course wider society reaps the benefits. The primary school age mind is receptive and flexible, responding to musical influences in a way that cannot be precisely defined. As Richard Gill pointed out, the need for music education has nothing to do with incidental benefits such as improving performance in maths. It is necessary and sufficient all by itself.

Future generations may be thankful as primary music education becomes mainstream. It is not too great a leap of faith to claim potential to fundamentally change the society in which we live.

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