Classical Music Futures Summit: Quick Points

I spent today (July 12) at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music at an event importantly titled the Classical Music Futures Summit, having scored a lucky last-minute invitation to be part of the talkfest.

So lately invited was I (somewhere between 6 and 2 weeks ago, depending on how you interpret the invitation) that the sheet listing the participants, explaining who they worked with/for, what they did/had done, along with their email addresses, didn’t include me. Which was fine – I’m very well-accustomed to people asking me who on earth I am.

This was my first experience at an event run by a professional facilitator, and I’ve come away from the day with a sense of awe at the quick-witted skillfulness displayed throughout the event, quickly sifting ideas into themes, managing the time-ego tug-of-war, and working to deliver both forward momentum and a sense of ownership to the participants. Truly inspiring work.

I’ve also come away from the day thrilled to have met some fabulous people in the flesh – people I’ve been tweeting with, like Yvonne Frindle who works with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, or blogging about, like Julian Day who works with Classic FM, or reading the blog of, like Gregory Sandow who works as a critic and writer and teaches at Julliard and the University of Maryland, or who were completely new to me [and I'm so glad I got to meet them] like Euan Murdoch of Chamber Music New Zealand.

And of course, it was equally fabulous to see familiar faces too – Rita Crews, John Colwill, Rachel Hocking and Sonny Chua from my experiences in educational piano music, John Davis from the Australian Music Centre and Matthew Hindson (probably only just recovered from the marathon that was the ISCM World New Music Days held in early May here in Sydney) who shares a publisher with me, amongst many others.

Greg Sandow was the keynote speaker, and there’s not a thing he said that didn’t make me nod and murmur with appreciation. His ideas are deceptively revolutionary, and it was interesting to see how warmly he was received, how rapt was the attention during his presentation, how enthusiastic the applause after, and yet the fundamental observations he made were routinely ignored in the remainder of the day. If this was a keynote speech the form of the day was atonal variations; most of Greg’s themes were inverted in further discussion and many of the comments from the floor were clear efforts at retrograde.

A statistical overview was then given, with what felt to me like too much detail at times along with some interesting philosophical perspectives emerging from some data. I’m just not convinced that statistics are best delivered aurally – I would have preferred an A4 page with numbers, graphs and conclusions that could have been taken into any and all discussions throughout the rest of the day. By now all I can remember thinking is that the statistics from Japan and China and other Asian nations simply couldn’t be lined up against European data without a broader economic and policy background, so I wiped that information immediately; I also recall most countries reported roughly a decline of 3 percentage points in concert attendance, so it depends where you started as to how truly appalling a statistic that is, and that education was attributed to the success of numbers increasing for concert attendance in some countries. Now this last issue struck me as a confusion of causal and casual links, but there was no time to query methodology before we moved on.

We then were facilitated into producing a vision of what success might look like in 2013, and it was at this point that I realised what a very difficult task the day would prove to be: instead of addressing the task immediately at hand (envision and describe a new world where our dreams for classical music have been realised) discussion easily devolved into anecdote or soapbox. And this is where a better preparation of participants would have been ideal, maybe with every participant needing to email in ideas addressing this question in advance, so that the small group discussion would be starting from somewhere beyond personal bugbears and old chestnuts. But even small advance preparations take considerable man-hours to marshall: this was the best we were going to manage today.

After a bit of synthesis we were let loose to collect our lunches and find our break-out discussion groups. I was in a group discussing audiences, and this is such a large issue I’ll leave the ideas emerging from this discussion for a separate blog post.

After 30 minutes we had a break to listen to Peter Garrett, the Minister for the Arts and Politically Damaging Stimulus Programs and former Midnight Oil front man, reveal that he’d been a chorister, could read music (although he phrased it ‘learned the difference between the black notes and the notes with white in the middle’) and had had a thoroughly decent music education that had laid a solid foundation for his work in the rock circuit and political life. When Peter left his prepared speech he was passionate and articulate and connected with his audience; left to follow the script he seemed destined to an unsatisfying end as yet another not-so-well-thought-through-Labour-recruit. He recited the dollar figures granted in subsidies to various music organisations, and this really was funny – some numbers were so low that they were in the ballpark of a politician’s annual salary – hardly impressive largesse. But he could name three Australian composers right off the bat, and even if his idea about the importance of classical music to the history of Australia was wildly exaggerated, his heart was clearly in the more-or-less right place.

The groups had another hour to work through their area of focus and then nearly two hours was spent reporting back.

This was again a time where I reflected with some degree of sorrow on the value that might have been achieved through a more thorough preparation of summit participants; some reports met the designated criteria (highlight 4 key points) while others didn’t even try (4 pages of densely scripted A2 sheets of butcher paper, with extra notes on the back of the final page), and this formal discrepancy created a lack of balance in this reporting process. This could have been minimised if everyone present had developed basic skills in following instructions at any point in their tertiary, secondary or primary school education. The personality of the designated reporter also made for wild differences in the dissemination of the ideas and insights from each group.

But the facilitator was worth her pay: she quickly found useful correlations between the discrepant reports, and rapidly shaped something workable with which to move into the future. Simply achieving an acknowledgement from the floor that an overarching strategic directions committee was needed to drive the next few months was a substantial feat, for this is where territory begins to be staked! Who is to be on this committee?, and who appoints them? dominated debate in a somewhat tiresome way, but then I don’t feel as if I have territory to protect, so that’s an easy observation for me to make.

So a real outcome, with measurable milestones: a good achievement for the Music Council of Australia.

Now for an update in three months to actually measure those milestones, and a new blog post from me in a day or two unpacking the ideologies and narratives in play throughout the summit.

Convincing Arguments for Music Education

Quite some time ago now I wrote a piece titled “Unconvincing Arguments for Music Education” in response to an article in the Australian press arguing for mandatory music education in Australian schools.

At first glance this heading may have suggested I believed either music education was not a valuable aspect of a child’s development, or that music education should not be included in the mandated curriculum. Quite the reverse, in fact, on both counts; but the arguments for why music education is important need to be more than a simple assertion that music education is a Good Thing, that it Improves Society and Civilises Citizens, and that we would be All the Poorer Without It.  This contribution just doesn’t cut it in the kind of evidence-based, best-practice world we inhabit these days.

With curricula and education practice endorsed and mandated in most part through the political system, it is vital that music educators stop arguing the value of music education through the lens of their own experience, and start being part of a debate that is mostly decided by people without a first hand knowledge of the impact music makes in the life of a child.

So, what are the convincing arguments, if any, for music education?

Firstly, the research showing links between playing a musical instrument and heightened intelligence is now quite solid.  But this research has been much misrepresented over the past fifteen or so years, with some researchers claiming that simply listening to music will increase an IQ score. Wrong. (Or at least, dodgy and unsubstantiated.) If you do want to gain an intelligence advantage through music you need to actually be playing the music yourself, and if you don’t keep practicing your skill you will lose those extra IQ points.

Learning to play a musical instrument will make you smarter (even if just a little).

Secondly, the emotional impact of music has been much played down by music academics (particularly in the middle to late twentieth century) as if admitting to an emotional aspect in what one studies will in some way make it less academic, less valuable!

Music has some neurological functions that make it the most direct means of communicating nuanced emotional content, certainly much more straightforward than spoken language (and obviously way ahead of emails and texting). Learning how to create music, to enact musical gestures, is a means of educating students about their own emotional life (how to understand it, how to deal with it), as well as connecting to the emotional lives of others.

Music education is a powerful tool in developing emotional (and not simply academic or intellectual) maturity in children and teenagers, and provides a means for them to communicate and process complex emotional realities.

Thirdly, sociologists have demonstrated repeatedly the role of music in identity formation in childhood then especially in adolescence, and also throughout adulthood.  This comes about in part due to the emotional content of music; we ‘relate’ to what music communicates and we experience music as narrating our own internal emotional responses to the world and the people in it.

In addition, humans have a response to music that is really quite extraordinary – we move in time to it. We feel the beat and the pulse in the music and we sing in time with each other, we jump up and down in mosh pits together, we sway, we march, we tap our toes. Listening to music is something that creates a feeling of belonging to a community, and this is another aspect of music that is at work in identity formation. Finding ourselves literally moved by music in the same way that others are we then recognise further commonalities by which we can define ourselves.

Not only do we find music expresses who we feel ourselves to be as individuals, but it expresses how we connect as groups and communities.

Music education helps children and adolescents know who they are and feel that they belong.

Finally, being involved in music performances is often cited as a turning point in a child’s awareness of what they might ask of themselves, and in their belief in what they can accomplish. Students are known to improve their performance across the spectrum of their educational contexts once they begin to believe that they are capable of excellence, and music performance is often the context in which students’ self-belief is boosted.

I have not seen any research on exactly which aspects of performance manage to flick the switch from shy to assertive in children, but many a time a child is transformed through the experience of performing music. And it is an exceptionally powerful moment when the child begins to believe that the extraordinary is possible.

Once that moment has been experienced there is no going back.  These children will be less afraid of tackling new tasks, of participating in a public forum.  And these children will be more likely to sign up for new learning experiences, consequently increasing their chances of learning even more.

Music education can develop children who believe in themselves, and who actively seek new challenges.

These reasons listed above are sound reasons for the mandatory inclusion of music in the education curriculum for every child.  Each of the benefits is one that contributes to a happier community and a more engaged citizenry.  I hesitate to suggest commercial benefits, but from a brazenly economic rationalist point of view one would think that these benefits are highly desirable.

And these arguments are convincing – so long as the person you are talking to has either experienced first hand what music can do, or actually takes seriously the research and evidence that backs up these claims.  And in the 21st century even though you can’t count on policy makers to be part of the first group, they have no excuse for not belonging to the second.

Is Sydney a piano-free zone?

I grew up in a community in rural New Zealand where many of the adults played the piano, and many of the adults who didn’t play the piano did play some other instrument, and nearly all the other adults were either enthusiastic or talented singers.  I grew up thinking everyone had a piano in their home and that of course everyone would want to play some kind of musical instrument, even if it wasn’t the piano.

Adulthood in Sydney, Australia has provided me with many instances demonstrating the degree to which I got it so terribly wrong: this city is filled with (and run by) people who not only grew up without a piano in the home or the desire to play a musical instrument, but they really have no idea at all about what it means to play a piano, or even what a piano is.

I was at a party held one New Year’s Eve in Darling Point as a guest of a guest. Part of the reason I was there is that one guest had thought it might be fun to sing Auld Lang Syne around a piano as the old year slipped out, and the host thought this to be an excellent development.  I turned up at the party and was surprised to see no piano. “Oh yes, I forgot to get it out of the cupboard”, was the host’s response.  Sure enough, the ‘piano’ was a keyboard that didn’t even have the dignity of its own stand – it would simply sit on a desk or dining room table (if it ever did get out of the wardrobe).  At least it was touch sensitive although, of course, weighted keys would have been nice….

At another social event a well-known business identity was telling me how he had just bought a brand new piano for his daughter to start lessons.  “What did you buy?”, I asked, meaning the question to refer to which brand of piano, and when this produced a hazy result I offered some names of manufacturers as a prompt: Yamaha, Kawai, Steinway? He’d clearly bought something else, so we moved on. “It doesn’t matter,” I said, “just tell me if you bought an upright or a grand.” This produced similarly blank looks, until he cried in triumph “Oh, I remember! It was a Casio!”

These two stories involve prominent Sydneysiders who would have had an excellent private school education and no lack of material resources whilst growing up.  It’s simply that they grew up with the complete reverse piano expectations to mine: they knew no one who had a piano in their home, or if they did have a piano no one played it. Music was certainly not something that one did.

And this is in a city whose international reputation is heavily associated with a performing arts venue.

By way of contrast, when I stayed in a modest hotel in Vienna for a night back in 2002 I asked the concierge if he could tell me where I might find a print music shop.  “Ah, you want to go to Doblinger!” he responded, and drew me a little map so I could find my way there.  Admittedly, if it’s going to happen anywhere in the world, it would be in Vienna, but it was clear that all the local citizenry had a basic working knowledge of things musical, irrespective of their occupation or social status.

One facet of Australian life (outside of the ‘arts’) where you do find people playing musical instruments is in sport.  Many of the current Australian cricket team play instruments, and I’ve even seen a few of them perform at a a fundraiser for the Steve Waugh Foundation.  And doctors, as in the rest of the world, have an extraordinary incidence of instrumentalists (and even composers) in their ranks. An Australian GP, Peter Goldsworthy, is the author of Maestro, a fantastic fictionalised account of his own piano studies that has been widely included in literature courses (but note that he resides in Adelaide).

Sports people certainly have a widely recognised and valued brand, and doctors still command a reasonable degree of respect in the community, but when it comes to those who run Australian business, politics and media there seems to be a complete absence of music experience or awareness (Alan Jones’ recent vocalisations at an Andre Rieu concert notwithstanding).

Does it matter?  Only so much as ignorance ever matters….

The New South Wales Board of Jewish Deputies annually sends a contingent of Australian media and political personnel to Israel to see for themselves what the nation is Israel is like, obviously with a view that a visit to Israel will be not only an informative but a positive experience for all involved.  Maybe it’s time Australian music education interests banded together to create a similar scheme to transport those with public influence to the land of Music, and its epicentre, Music-Making.

Australia is a country that produces not just excellent pianists but probably the most technically innovative piano of the past hundred years, the Stuart piano. And yet the businessmen of Sydney can’t tell a Casio keyboard from a concert grand.

What was wrong with last night’s ABC news (Sydney)

This is the complaint I’ve just sent off to the ABC about the ridiculous story they did about NSW politics last night….. I will update the blog if a response is forthcoming, and/or if the calibre of state political reporting suddenly improves.

Leaving aside the dubious judgement involved in deciding the most important state political news of the day was that Kristina Kenneally objected to being winked at in parliament, the segue into the launch of a new education program by Verity Firth (commenting that the minister for education had a brush with trouble herself) demonstrated a complete absence of logic. This ‘brush with trouble’ was that some small twigs from an overhanging tree branch brushed Verity Firth’s hair as she entered a school ground.

You have got to be kidding me. On the ABC?

The story was simply untrue – Verity Firth had not had a ‘brush with trouble’ of any kind. Puerile reportage of this kind does nothing to further the interests of the public, of the public broadcaster or of the public dollar. And any illusion the news team may have had that this comment was some form of political analysis needs to be immediately dismantled, debunked and deflated.

I’ll be watching the news this evening to find out who in the NSW state parliament stepped on a crack in the pavement today.

Spells trouble

So here in Australia, thanks to Senator Fielding, we now know that ‘fiscal’ has neither 3 syllables (as in physical) nor a K.  Turns out that Fielding has trouble with language thanks to a form of dyslexia that resulted in his achieving only 29 in his final high school English exams.  His other marks were exceptional (all in the 90s) so this is not an issue of intellect, but rather of a specific aptitude that Fielding lacks in regard to language skills.

Fielding was addressing a media contingent a few days ago, and after he had referring several times to ‘physical policy’ one intrepid reporter inquired if he didn’t mean ‘fiscal policy’. Fielding replied “fiscal – F-I-S-K-A-L” to the collective surprise (and then delight) of everyone in the media who knew that’s not how you spell fiscal.

So now we have people coming to Fielding’s defence, saying “leave the poor bloke alone, he can’t help it if he can’t spell”.  This is then countered by others saying “English isn’t my first language – do you know how hard I’ve worked so that I can spell properly, and be taken seriously in my adopted country?”.  And the obvious (and obviously moronic) “what the hell is a moron doing in parliament?”.

Today one prominent columnist joined in the brouhaha with a battery of opinions on the matter. She began by suggesting that if Senator Fielding hadn’t taken a climate change sceptic position then journalists might not be so quick to deride this educational failing.  But by the end of her piece she had reached the conclusion, and I may be paraphrasing somewhat loosely here,  that if we were teaching children to read using phonics (as compared to a whole word approach) then Australia wouldn’t find itself with bad spellers voted into office;  a conclusion based on ignoring a quite interesting body of work about what makes reading a challenge to students with one of the dyslexic spectrum of learning difficulties.

I’d kind of like everyone in the nation to understand the benefit of applying the appropriate research data and conclusions to problems under consideration, but I suspect it might be asking too much of newspaper columnists to do so.  Politicians we should still hold to this high expectation, even if their spelling skills are patchy.

To me the question is not one of spelling but one of presentation.  If, as a politician, one knows one has a weakness (say, one can’t clap in time with music, can’t stand up on a surfboard, or can’t spell) then it would seem quite a straightforward matter to politely, and without drawing attention to the fact, avoid ever doing in the public the thing that is a struggle.  The error of judgement involved in Senator Fielding’s decision to enact a dramatic gesture through the spelling out of a word is where the real questions as to fitness to political office kick in.

And yet, even as I type the words, I see what a nonsense this is, living as I do in the state of New South Wales, where most politicians would be thinking they had had a very good day indeed if the worst thing that had happened to them had been a bit of bad spelling.