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Education feature: music


Playing hard: team playing

Harriet Cunningham


Sydney Children’s Choir Sydney Children’s Choir
photo Bridget Elliot
"If all the music institutions closed tomorrow, music would still continue."
Raffaele Marcellino, composer & educator

It might not be a very positive way to begin an investigation into the state of music education, but Raffaele Marcellino’s sentiment recurs when discussing formal institutions. Among dedicated contemporary practitioners—curators, producers, composers and performers—there is an all-pervasive sense that music institutions cannot, or will not, do enough for the cutting edge performer.

There is, it seems, a fundamental problem with teaching contemporary music which can be chased back to the realisation that it doesn’t fit traditional models of learning. It’s not a problem unique to music: dance, theatre and visual arts have all grappled with how to deal with creativity in an academic or pedagogic environment. However, it seems particularly acute in the field of music, perhaps because there are some deeply entrenched models which do fit, and can take up most or all of the existing institutions’ energies, if allowed to do so.

The magnificent canon of classical music, for instance, keeps musicologists busy for at least 3 years, probably without venturing far out of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. And “getting your chops” aka acquiring a rock-solid technique to master this repertoire to a standard where one could perform professionally can swallow up, say, 6 hours a day on an ongoing basis, for one’s entire undergrad and postgrad study. So much to do, so little time...

Asking contemporary practitioners their views on what the music colleges offer seems to touch a raw nerve and spark a torrent of philosophising about what could and should be done. However, educational philosophies aside, there are some specific and practical conclusions to be drawn.

First, the universities. These are, surprisingly, given fairly short shrift by most new music advocates. While loath to make direct attacks, most find the academic framework of a university system incompatible with creative challenge. There is a sense that music performance and creation does not fit into a humanities model of study because it relies on subjective as well as objective assessment, a state-of-play which universities, it is suggested, find profoundly unsettling. So where are the good new musicians coming from? Given the existence of a strong traditional offering from the flagship schools such as the Sydney Conservatorium of Music (the Con) and Queensland Conservatorium of Music (QCM), it is less surprising that most practitioners nominate other institutions. Says Marcellino, “...Places like the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), the Victorian College of Arts (VCA), and the University of Western Sydney (UWS) are starting to grapple with what it means to deal with creativity. The established places still tend to work from your classic composer/performer divisions, whereas the others see a blurred line.”

Saxophonist and composer Timothy O’Dwyer agrees. Of the Victorian options, VCA is the most obviously flexible course, he says, and also cites the work of Thomas Reiner at Monash University and Philip Samartzis at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). “[T]he students coming out of there have a really good sense of relevance and there’s a thriving kind of scene happening.” However he says that these centres of activity tend to be based around electronic, rather than acoustic music. In Western Australia, Tos Mahoney, producer of the Totally Huge Music Festival, sees some interesting artists emerging from the West Australian Academy for the Performing Arts (WAAPA). “[Composer] Lindsay Vickery is there and is dedicated to new music.” He also observes that as a multi-disciplinary establishment there is much healthy cross-fertilisation between new music, art and dance. He mentions in particular the head of visual arts, Domenico de Clario, who has set up an off-campus exhibition space called Spectrum which hosts regular events and exhibitions. However, he cautions “...it is not secure, in the sense that it is reliant on one or 2 people.”

Performers also point out that the music schools are still an important resource—they are a haven for students undergoing that intense period of training where they learn instrumental technique and musicianship. As O’Dwyer says, “...they’re doing an OK job. You gotta give people the fundamentals.” However, he is not alone in lamenting that the conservatoriums tend to lack the time, money or inclination to go beyond the basics. “If [students have] only got the fundamental skills,” he continues, “the sound world is smaller, the palette is smaller. For composers to awrite challenging music becomes more and more difficult.” He concludes, “it would be great if there was another year at uni....”

Most practitioners seem to have mixed feelings about the musical hothouses in the capital cities, which have been dubbed “orchestral sausage factories.” Alison Johnston, who runs the Sydney-based contemporary vocal ensemble, Cantillation, says, “...the trouble with going to an opera school is you will spend a lot of time developing the skills to be a principal, which means, almost by definition, you’re not developing ensemble skills.” While it is rare for her to recruit singers who are untrained, Johnston needs qualities that are not emphasised in formal vocal studies. “They need really good voices, [and must be] very, very fast readers. They need to be excellent musicians as well...and an ensemble voice as opposed to a solo voice...The best training institution I know is Sydney Children’s Choir, because Lyn [Williams, artistic director] is amazing at creating confidence and an incredibly high level of skill. If they then take that forward into singing lessons they stand a better chance than anyone else of having the right kind of skills.”

This alternative route, via non-institutionalised, pre-tertiary or complementary courses, attracts much praise. The Australian Composers’ Orchestral Forum, the Australian Youth Orchestra’s New Voices program (QLD, with Elision) and the Club Zho project (WA) are singled out by musicians as inspiring, although sadly isolated, examples of contemporary practice development.

The Sydney Conservatorium’s answer to these types of activity is its composer/performer workshop program. Con graduate Damien Ricketson, now composer and artistic director of Ensemble Offspring (which is made up almost entirely of Con graduates) says, “...despite being an inherently difficult subject to manage, the composer performer workshop is quite a unique program. It provides the best possible feedback for composer and performer.” Beyond this however, Ricketson acknowledges a certain frustration that arises from occupying the periphery of an institution’s primary activities: “It is a challenging proposition to convert the loose enthusiasm of individuals who cross paths in an academic environment into tangible policy initiatives.”

Perhaps, in the end, loose enthusiasm and crossing paths is what it is all about. For what seems to unite contemporary practitioners far more than where they went, or who they studied with, is their own personal attributes. Elision’s Daryl Buckley, says, “What’s needed is a high degree of enthusiasm, and a preparedness to commit yourself to working out really quite difficult things. ...[W]ithin contemporary practice there’s a large amount of ephemeral activity which doesn’t necessarily require traditional music training. A lot of performance may occur with destroyed keyboards, electronic toys, antennae, midi triggers...a lot emerges from people who have lived in a culture of experimenting with gadgets. It’s not something that can be catered for comfortably in an institution. If it can be, the institution is often behind the times—it can only be reactive, not proactive.”

Buckley says, “For a lot of contemporary practice it is important that it’s not located within an institution. Traditional music-making is fundamentally aware of its own practice, has a sense of its own tradition, a canon. It is constantly referenced, recorded and re-recorded. There are ways of evaluating and measuring performance...there are also courses, such as those offered by the Institut of Sonology in Den Haag that historicise and deal comprehensively in developments with sound art and electronica...But it is important to recognise that a lot of recent contemporary practice is still, of necessity, ephemeral. It occurs in small scenes, 10 or 20 people in a lounge room who do not find it important to be connected with an institution. There is a sense of play; maybe it is brought on by 15 minutes of glory, or maybe by being sexy to some friends. Institutions find it inherently difficult to relate to that kind of activity.”

So what does make a contemporary practitioner? Buckley has the last word: “Ultimately, it’s self-generated. Whether it is a composer or a performer of some kind, using any kind of technology, whether a violin, sampler or self-made pedal, you have to have that obsessional ability to block out most of the world and pursue your own thing to the nth degree.” With Marcellino and many other colleagues, he concludes on a not entirely negative note: “[Music education] institutions are a relatively recent development. Debussy hated them and thought nothing good would come of them. ...To some degree [the work] will happen in spite of them.”


Sydney based, Harriet Cunningham writes on music for the Sydney Morning Herald.

RealTime issue #56 Aug-Sept 2003 pg. 43

© Harriet Cunningham; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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