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Limited solutions to a crisis in specialisation

Matthew Lorenzon: Peter Tregear, “Enlightenment or Entitlement?”, Platform Papers, 38

The dust has now settled from the tectonic shifts at the ANU School of Music. For those who did not feel the earthquake from its epicentre in Canberra, the shock arrived on 2 May, 2012, when all positions in the department were declared vacant in an epically mismanaged ‘spill and fill.’ The then-Head of Music Adrian Walter disappeared on leave, before popping up on a Hong Kong news site as the newly-appointed Director of the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts.

A sham of a consultation process ensued, during which the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) quarrelled idly with the new Pro-Vice-Chancellors, whose wages just happened to equal the projected savings from cuts to the School. The community didn’t come up with the money to stem the job losses and the local orchestra saw the whole shebang as a great opportunity. The only real and clear-headed organisation came from the students, who put on some of the finest protests and concerts that Llewellyn Hall had ever seen to defend an education that they believed to be first-rate. Enter Peter Tregear, a spirited academic and senior administrator (who I’m sure prefers the former title) with all the right credentials, first and foremost of which was his foreignness to the whole situation.

Tregear took the helm in November, 2012, once all the spilling and most of the filling was over. He has proceeded, despite the holes left by a valuable faculty corralled in more prosperous times, to shape the school into its own thing, with its own distinct merits. It is reaching out into the community through educational programs, bringing the community in through a fine micro-brewery setting up shop on the ground floor, expanding its early music area, even reaching up by squeezing into the sixth floor of the building. It has become, as is only appropriate for the music department of our national University, a centre for the study of Indigenous Australian musics.

But my place here is not to evaluate the changes to the School. I am, after all, still a PhD student there, Tregear is my principal supervisor and I intend that he continue to read my thesis drafts. Instead, I’m going to review some of Tregear’s ample public commentary on music education in general, in particular the Platform Paper “Enlightenment or Entitlement?: Rethinking Tertiary Music Education,” published in February by Currency House.

The limits of music advocacy

While Tregear’s definition of the “crisis” in music education is sound and his solution of an “ethical” music education worthwhile in its own right, music advocacy has a limited effect upon the structural problems raised by music departments within corporatised universities. Alongside Tregear’s survivalist rhetoric of the ethical responsibilities of music students to their communities, we need to consider the ethical imperative of music educators to provide an education in music.

The essential parts of the essay are really the first and last chapters. Here Tregear defines the “crisis” in music education and his own solution: a new ethics of personal responsibility. The crisis is twofold: firstly, under the “logic of late-capitalism,” university departments are placed in a state of artificial crisis that leads to perpetual competition for funds (consider the PVCs’ salaries and the music budget), a competition that music education can only lose given the expense of studio teaching. Secondly, internal competition distracts from the “real” problem: that of convincing the broader society of music education’s worth.

Musicians as good citizens

Tregear’s solution is to make students “good citizens” as well as good musicians. They will be exposed to a broader humanities education and coached in critical perspectives so that they can question their role within society and defend their musical values. This socially aware cohort will then go out into the world, trumpeting the value of music far and wide and, the idea goes, fostering a new culture of philanthropy. Bravo to Tregear for advocating cultural leadership, or the spirited and open defence of whatever one takes to be “good music.” Contemporary art music has taken the lead in this regard by finding new and innovative modes of presentation and engaging in brave, didactic programming. I am thinking in particular of Speak Percussion’s new music spectacles, the good vibes of MONA FOMA, Ensemble Offspring’s intimate concerts and the historical surveys of Kupka’s Piano.

Not only is the first part of Tregear’s vision (the fostering of a critical culture within music) worthwhile in its own right, it is achievable with the absolute minimum of fuss and may be said to already exist in some places. Students only need access and some impetus to enrol in existing courses in philosophy, social theory, politics, literature and cultural studies. Musician and academic Michael Hooper points out in his response to Tregear’s essay (published in Platform Paper 39) that his own institution, the University of New South Wales, offers a variety of double degrees with music, as did Adelaide University during my undergraduate degree. Students naturally carry their knowledge across disciplines, but a greater synchronicity between the philosophical and theoretical frameworks taught in other disciplines and those in musicology classes wouldn’t hurt either. But could Tregear’s model solve the crisis? Of this I am extremely doubtful because the feedback loop between the public and our corporatised universities is broken.

The broken loop: the public & the universities

If students are taught that they ought to serve their communities, it is evident that not all university executives share this conviction outside their barest obligations as “service providers.” This was succinctly demonstrated in the case of the ANU School of Music restructure, where there was no initial lack of public support for the School as it stood (short of raising a $60m trust to bankroll it). All that mattered to the university executive was providing education to as many customers as possible at the least possible expense. There is no shortage of music students; they are just an expensive lot. As this will never change, no amount of propaganda will increase support for music education within the institution until the fundamental ideology of the executive changes. Small battles are won and the fault at the middle of Tregear’s essay, where he discourses widely and optimistically on a range of issues central to the ANU situation, is its dialectical playing-down of his advocacy of one-to-one studio teaching. Against the initial wishes of an executive who once justified the cuts to me by saying “some of my friends learn instruments on YouTube,” ANU now offers more studio teaching than any other Australian university.

Philanthropy disengaged

As to philanthropy, it is evident that the corporatised university does not effectively engage it to the common good. Two examples: Canberra’s (11 June, 2011) reported the story of arts patron Barbara Blackman and her attempt to spend a “spare million dollars” on an arts-music studio at the ANU. After presenting a pilot sum of $10,000 “and the suggestion of a substantial donation to follow,” she received “a receipt, but [the University] never followed up on her requests for a meeting with the then-vice chancellor, while indicating that she could have no say in the use of any sum she gave.” Not surprisingly, Blackman “signed the biggest full stop you’ve ever seen.”

The second example concerns the more recent $50m gift from Graham Tuckwell, himself a state school alumnus, to fund scholarships intended for “those who were bright, engaged and ‘ready to work hard’, and who may not have had advantaged upbringings” (5 Feb, 2013, Tuckwell’s gift is to be applauded and emulated. How can one not brim with noble feeling at the intention to help “kids from different states, different cities, different country towns” go to university, taking into account “grades, natural ability, background and drive”? (5 Feb, 2013, The problem is in the implementation. Though the preamble to the award’s selection criteria recognises that “everyone is dealt a different hand in life,” background does not form part of the actual selection criteria. Though public schools are represented in some other states, the Victorian recipients come exclusively from the state’s wealthiest schools (30 July, 2014, and 16 of the 24 awards across Australia went to such schools. In his blog, Andrew Norton (22 July, 2014, further argues that analysis of the socio-economic data of the successful schools suggests a massive over-representation of the top socio-economic quartile. Within a corporatised university, even philanthropy must be turned away from community service towards growing the prestige of the university’s brand.

Ethical obligations to students

Given the degraded lines of communication from the community to the university, perhaps we should return to the question of just what teachers’ ethical obligations to students are. Hooper agrees with Tregear that Schools of Music have an ethical duty to “not predetermine” students’ careers. By this he means that Schools of Music should provide a rounded education that will stand students in good stead in the broad range of work in which many will inevitably find themselves. Nobody would deny, of course, that this is second to the duty of providing students preparation for a career in music performance, seeing that is principally why they are attending university. Tregear and Hooper are right, students should determine their own career paths. But “not predetermining” a career path is a simple matter of allowing or requiring students to take subjects in other disciplines and should not detract from the business of core music education.

What sort of music education

Which brings us to the question of what sort of music education should be provided. On this issue I could not agree more with Michael Hooper, and indeed I made the same argument in the Arts Education article last year (RT116, p10). That is, that Australian Music Schools need to specialise and students should be encouraged to travel to receive the specialist music training they desire, be it in early music, contemporary music, orchestral playing, popular music and so on. But this requires a cultural awareness that is not often found in Australian school leavers.

The true value of Tregear’s enlightened cohort could be in fostering cultural literacy so that students are capable of determining which rigorous course of study they want to pursue. When they do, high quality and specialised Schools of Music should be there for them.

Peter Tregear, “Enlightenment or Entitlement?: Rethinking tertiary music education,” Platform Papers: Quarterly Essays on the Performing Arts 38, Currency House, 2014

RealTime issue #122 Aug-Sept 2014 pg. 10

© Matthew Lorenzon; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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