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arts education


the job-ready graduate: underpinning independence

keith gallasch: music


VCA Music Theatre Evening (Foundation) Course students performing in Eddie Perfect’s Up VCA Music Theatre Evening (Foundation) Course students performing in Eddie Perfect’s Up
photo R James
THE CAREER OPTIONS FOR THE MUSIC GRADUATE ARE MANY: INSTRUMENTALIST, ENSEMBLE OR ORCHESTRAL MEMBER, COMPOSER, PRODUCER, MANAGER, TECHNICIAN, TEACHER OR, TYPICAL OF THE TIMES, A COMBINATION OF SEVERAL OF THESE. WHILE THE OPINIONS OF EDUCATORS VARY AS TO THE STRENGTH OF THE JOB MARKET (IT’S AGREED THAT MUSIC TECHNOLOGY IS A GROWTH AREA), THERE’S PLENTY OF EVIDENCE THAT TEACHING IS INCREASINGLY GEARED TO PRODUCING HIGHLY ADAPTABLE GRADUATES IMBUED WITH SOME BUSINESS SENSE AND A CAPACITY FOR SELF PROMOTION.

qut creative industries

Professor Andy Arthurs of QUT Creative Industries emphasises that creative industries education is not simply marketplace oriented, but is about the creative artist understanding the economic value of their skill and work. The overall approach, he says, is outward looking, endgendering in students a spirit that looks for and creates audiences, rather than simply expressing oneself.

To prepare undergraduate students to connect with the music industry there are course units dedicated to workplace experience including, in 2007 and 2008, attending the QMusic Big Sound annual music industry conference. The final examination for the Bachelor of Music degree involves staging a self-produced and promoted work for the public in venues chosen by the student. These have ranged from cafes to churches to the Tivoli and the Brisbane Powerhouse. A couple of years ago Arthurs suspected that the project was becoming a bit too demanding but students responded that they loved it and the sense of completion that came with it. Also project centred is the Master of Creative Industry degree which allows students to work within or across disciplines and in which a major project is the centrepiece over the 18 month period of the degree.

Arthurs is impressed with some of the idiosyncratic and entrepreneurial results emerging from QUT graduates, citing cellist Tara Simmons who has formed a group with three other cellists, with electronics, and “is generating her own material, new music, in her own voice.” Other students graduate into the world of production: a course specifically in sound design attracts students who might be otherwise deterred by the Bachelor of Music label, says Arthurs. By 2010, substantially improved facilities will make this course even more attractive.

A new QUT initiative that will focus on filling the hole between academic work and research or teaching, and professional experience is the creation of a Centre for Independent Music, aimed at merging practice with research and bringing non-academic musicians into touch with graduates. As Arthurs points out, “many practising musicians have never done a university course but have lots to offer.” The centre will include an A&R (artists & repertoire) Lab, “a kind of Brill Building for the digital age”, quips Arthurs. It will be available as well to third year undergraduates.

QUT comes up well on course experience evaluation—95% of recent graduates are happily employed, and many who have studied music are now teachers or working in sound production. But Arthurs points out that happiness is relative—not all musicians want to be fully employed, “they want to do 50% of this and 50% of that, or start small, or work from a portfolio of skills.”

waapa: music theatre

David King, who’s been with the Edith Cowan University’s West Australian Academy of Performing Arts for eight years, is rightly proud of the school’s 20 years of producing many of the best of Australia’s musical theatre performers. Currently, he says, half the cast in the Rocky Horror show are ex-WAAPA, as are the leads in Wicked and the casts in a number of forthcoming musicals.

King says he’s encouraged by WAAPA’s constant success, although he admits there’s never enough work in a competitive field, as reflected in course demand: 350 applications for a mere 18 positions for the three year Bachelor of Arts (Music Theatre) degree. The teaching, says King, is labour intensive: the course is taught by a discrete unit of five permanent staff and 25 sessional teachers, yielding unusually high contact time of 30-32 hours per week with students. And there are one on one singing lessons each week.

When we discuss career-readiness, King points out that students perform from the word go—to each other and teachers in their first year, and in eight productions a year in their second and third years.The productions range from small scale works, to amphitheatre shows to full scale musicals. Every afternoon of the 9am-6pm working day students are in rehearsal. King jokes that once they commence their career and a show’s on, former students might be surprised to find themselves with some spare time.

Courses also include learning to play piano (“it saves on hiring a pianist”) and aural training (recognising chords, understanding harmony and handling ensemble and part-writing—as in the challenges presented by Sweeney Todd, currently in rehearsal at WAAPA). There’s also a one year course in the history of the musical, and two years in the history of theatre. As for tracking graduate careers, King says that’s become easy with the internet. Former students keep in touch and their successes are conveyed to a new generation of students.

elder conservatorium of music, adelaide university

Stephen Whittington, assistant director of the Elder Conservatorium of Music and Head of Studies in Music Technology the University of Adelaide sees the job market for graduates as being “relatively strong in certain areas —such as those involved with technology; but weak in education as a result of continuing decline of investment in music at secondary school level.” As for jobs with professional ensembles such as orchestras, Whittington sees the number of positions as stable but without growth.

To assist students in career preparation at the Elder Conservatorium, Whittington writes that “undergraduate degrees all contain one course component in marketing and business skills including such things as writing grant applications, CVs and creating websites.” For graduates there is some scholarship money available from both the school and from the Helpmann Academy.

Given the emergence of new art form practices and the need to have some experience of cross artform work, Whittington describes how Adelaide has addressed this particular challenge in an inter-collegiate manner: “Some [Elder Conservatorium] courses do have an interdisciplinary or hybrid arts focus, and projects of this kind are encouraged through the Helpmann Academy—a body set up to facilitate cooperation between different schools. There is no one school in Adelaide that teaches music, dance, theatre, visual art, multimedia, so most such projects require the cooperation of two or more institutions.”

vca: music theatre—triple threat

While WAAPA mentions the term ‘triple threat’ in its course description, the new degree in music theatre at the Victorian College of the Arts headlines it as VCA Bachelor of Music Theatre—The Triple Threat. The degree co-directors are Martin Croft and Margot Fenley. Croft explains that ‘triple threat’ is an American musical theatre term that describes the high competitive advantage of an artist who can act, move and sing equally well.

I ask, given the great success of WAAPA’s training a generation and more of Australian music theatre artists in Perth, is it worth setting up a degree in musical theatre in Melbourne? Croft is of the opinion that “a music theatre school on the east coast in a major city has some significant advantages: Melbourne has a vibrant arts community and creates a lot of ground-breaking work, especially in small companies. And there’ll have been five major musicals in Melbourne by the end of the year. There are also smaller pro-am and professional shows, and the Pratt Foundation presents three shows a year.”

The new degree has evolved from a two-year foundation degree, now in its sixth year with an intake by audition for first year of some 18-26 students per annum, and by invitation only to the second year for 10 to 14 students. Croft says that each year agents and producers eagerly come to watch the students at work: “The employment success rate has been great and with a high percentage of graduates securing that rare possiblity—an agent.” Graduate careers are easy to track, says Croft, because former students keep in touch. Graduates from the foundation course are working in Wicked and have appeared in Shane Warne the Musical, The Lion King, Cats, Miss Saigon and others, not just in Australia but in Japan, Germany and North America.

The school has two full-time staff and six sessional teachers. Courses include units in acting, movement and dance (classical, jazz and pop) and musicianship, where the student acquires basic notation knowledge and basic keyboard skills. In their third year the students will perform major musicals while in their second they’ll be involved in the workshopping of new Australian musicals with their creators. Croft’s ambition, he declares with passion, is “not just to create triple threats, but good actors in all three departments—acting, singing and moving.”

northern rivers conservatorium arts centre

Regional universities and schools face substantial challenges, but can attract students by providing intimacy and focus in environments with few distractions. The Northern Rivers Conservatorium Arts Centre (NRCAC) in Lismore in northern New South Wales offers full-time Certificate and Diploma courses in contemporary music, drama, dance and screen. There are courses in contemporary music (blues, jazz, rock, pop, world, ethnic music, contemporary Western art music), technical production and music business.

Imogen Wolf, the Centre’s assistant director and vocal tutor, says that NRCAC aims to turn out students who are self-directed, multi-skilled and able to promote themselves. They leave as sole traders and with a promotional kit they’ve produced themselves, including a CD and related artwork. Wolf says the NRCAC’s Screen Studies students are an asset, helping the musicians create valuable video clips. There’s a business course which includes website building skills, entails marketing and self and event management. Wolf recalls “a woman enrolling so that she could learn how to manage her son’s band.” Students gain performance experience in concerts and in hotels in Lismore and Byron Bay. Most of the centre’s students come from this region but, says Wolf, there are always applicants from interstate. Some current students are from Israel. Our market is global.”

Appreciative former NRCAC students include singer-songwriter Jimmi Carr, Sal Yates (of Ghost Mountain), and Natalie Pa’apa’a, who majored in guitar, and Carlo Santone from Blue King Brown, who studied bass. Blue King Brown were the support act on the recent Carlos Santana tour and Pa’apa’a dueted with the great guitarist. Wolf points out that these kinds of artists are often accomplished musicians when they arrive at NRCAC, but are looking to hone their skills and improve their knowledge.

queensland conservatorium,
griffith university

Vanessa Tomlinson, Head of Percussion and Senior Lecturer in Music at the Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University (QCGU), writes, “As there is no single career pathway for graduate students in music, curriculum content has been slowly changing from training toward a specific outcome (eg orchestral position, solo pianist etc) to an experiential education. For a percussionist this means a change away from a four-year curriculum focusing on solo performance and orchestral studies, to intensive units in jazz vibes, tabla, drum-set, latin percussion etc. These intensive courses are taught in group lessons alongside reduced hours in private tuition.”

An ensemble program entails “improvisation, collective composition, site-specific work, commissioning of new work, and re-contextualisation of more established works.” While opening up job opportunities, this approach also develops a skill base including administration, logistics, arranging and developing group dynamics, and, says Tomlinson,”with awareness and confidence about the musical world.” Work Integrated Learning has become an important part of the curriculum at QCGU and includes a Traineeship Program with The Queensland Orchestra, which the university is looking forward to formalising, and numerous possibilities in the music technology area.

Tomlinson uses performance examinations to showcase student abilities, the external examiners including composers, directors of new music ensembles and orchestral musicians. She says that by the end of their studies students may be involved in hybrid art forms, improvisation and conceptual art, and examiners are chosen in the area of developing expertise. Percussion is naturally a more flexible art form, having the joy of being whatever we define it as being!”

In 2008 QCGU will begin showcasing the graduating class to the public and invited guests from industry. As well, for more than 10 years, QCGU has hosted a registered agency, called Queensland Conservatorium Performers Agency, which contracts out current or past students of QCGU. Like QUT and other schools, QCGU is in the process of building a database for tracking the career trajectories of alumni.

It’s clear that as much as independence is being encouraged in students as an integral part of their music degrees and diplomas around the country, there are a growing number of strategies being put in place to make the most of the adaptability and entrepreneurial spirit being thus engendered.

RealTime issue #86 Aug-Sept 2008 pg. 37

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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