These ARE The Good Old Days

These ARE The Good Old Days

This last weekend I attended the Kennedy Awards, a New South Wales-based peer-awarded recognition of excellence in journalism, in the role of handbag to my journalist husband (who also happened to be nominated for, and go on to win, an award). Many stories were shared over the course of the night – events that had transpired behind the headlines, hair-raising exploits of reporters whose recklessness was matched by their journalistic brilliance. At some point in the evening, my husband noted that, for all the journalists in the room, these were ‘the good old days’ that would be recounted 20 years, 30 years, 50 years hence. From the premier undone by a bottle of wine through to disgraced former policemen being arrested for murder; from pervasively corrupt infrastructure deals involving Sydney’s water supply and regional mining leases through to politicians being handed paper bags of $10,000 cash just prior to elections; these are the good old days these journalists will look back on.

This last weekend also saw the passing away of iconic Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, a man whose music and mentorship has defined much of what it means to express oneself as an Australian composer. Anyone whose lives were touched by his has found themselves complicit in communal remembering of various good old days and decades with Peter: former students, editors, performers, pop musicians who enjoyed drinking/collaborating with him, friends. Peter Sculthorpe’s death has suddenly rendered a whole suite of musical and human experience as part of the fondly remembered past.

The present becomes history so rapidly.

In my first year at university I was studying composition and the general music subjects one studies in one’s first year. But on the side I was taking a course in 20th century literature. This was 1984, and I was just 16 years old. The first term’s lectures were devoted to poetry, and the lecturer started with Gerard Manley Hopkins and took us the way through to boot-legged recordings of the then still (comparatively) nascent hip hop and rap that had been developing in New York. “This is your time,” the lecturer told us, “this is the time of your contemporaries. The art that will be talked about in 50 years time is the art being made around you right now. One day you will realise that you were here. Pay attention.”

I couldn’t believe how exciting it felt. I felt so privileged to be experiencing the living of history when I was still so young! Things that had already happened, that were already over, notated, documented, recorded – they weren’t the limit of what counted. Yesterday – this morning – this afternoon – mattered, too. It was all important. Suddenly, as I walked down the hill to catch the bus, the very atmosphere was heavy with all the creating that was possible, all the contemporaneousness that was.

In shaping learning experiences for my piano students I am always aware that as much as the past informs the present, so the present will soon be that past that informs future presents… How am I teaching my students about the past they are a part of? How am I helping them connect with contemporary experience as future memory? As future history?

I was gloriously fortunate in my teachers, both at university and at high school – teachers who understood that they were building the past even as they were building the future. I don’t just honour them by maintaining that tradition in my own teaching – I honour my students, present and yet to come, who are only just beginning to realise that these are their good old days.

Top Classical 20th Century Pieces: ABC Classic FM Edition

Top Classical 20th Century Pieces: ABC Classic FM Edition

Fabulous concept, fabulous consequences: you’re a radio station that broadcasts classical music exclusively and you ask your listeners to vote on their absolute favourite classical pieces from the 20th century. Each listener gets 10 votes and they can nominate whichever piece of music they fancy. The top 100 pieces are then broadcast over the space of a week, concluding with a concert featuring the top 5 pieces, live-broadcast to conclude the event. And since it’s 2011, the whole broadcast event comes replete with facebook discussions and a twitter hashtag. Go.

The countdown began at number 100, naturally, and John Adam’s The Chairman Dances from Nixon in China seemed about right. But over the course of the next 10 or so entries things began to unravel. Schmaltzy and ersatz contributions were mixing it with works commonly regarded as masterworks, and straight-out film scores even got a look-in. We all knew this was a popularity contest, but even so it felt as if voters hadn’t known the rules (even though there actually weren’t any rules, apart from the oddity of ABC Classic FM declaring the 20th century to have lasted til 2010).

Social media and outrage make excellent companions, and it didn’t take more than a day for the ABC Classic FM facebook page to feature a post requesting that those contributing to the debate take a positive tone; in addition, facebook’s quirks meant that some posts were marked as spam and required moderation to be included, so there was some confusion regarding exactly what was being moderated away.

Listeners could also call a talk-back line to pre-record their responses to the broadcasts, and the choices of listeners in the countdown. This was the most amusing aspect of the week-long broadcast. Many positive comments along the lines of “I’m hearing so much wonderful music I’ve never heard before” were interspersed with “this rubbish is a disgrace”, this negative comment uttered as frequently about the schmaltzy works as it was about the inclusions that were distinctly ’20th century’ in their aesthetic. Contributing to the entertainment was the experience of hearing the accents and intonations of Classic FM’s listenership, then inferring the listening demographic from phonetics alone.

Twitter is, of course, beyond moderation, so comments posted there were both pithy and unforgiving, and tended toward a more academic conception of the 20th Century: the notion that the century should last only 100 years and not include works originating in 1899 or post-2000, for instance, was taken for granted; the inclusion of works composed outside an art music intention was poorly received, and the inclusion of works that were largely lifted from the 19th century (whether we are talking late-century plagiarism or composers in the earliest parts of the century composing in anachronistic musical languages) met with broad disdain.

Particularly fascinating was the way the ABC Classic FM broadcasting team dealt with these various kinds of feedback: pre-recorded phone messages were regularly played, representing a wide spectrum of views; facebook comments were increasingly incorporated into the broadcast as the week went on; the twitter conversation went almost entirely unreported, and only tweets free of critique made it into the broadcast hours I heard. Many broadcasters were clearly unfamiliar with the whole concept of social media, another interesting demographic reality.

Those of us conversing via #classic100 on twitter found ourselves quite dispirited by the time we came to the final 20. It was clear that important works weren’t going to make it onto the list at all, and many immensely popular composers from the past few decades were also going without representation.

In a superb stroke of programming the concert broadcast of the top 5 pieces was immediately followed by a two hour broadcast discussing some of the works that didn’t make the top 100, but were in the 101-200 tranche of nominations/votes. This was beautifully done, and many listeners commented via facebook that they enjoyed this broadcast even more than they’d enjoyed the concert prior. Of course, this review of what wasn’t included had the benefit of curation in a way that the listener/voter-determined top 100 had not; the two hour broadcast was able to highlight ideas, genres, and stylistic directions from the 100 pieces in such a way as to tell a story, and this narrative arc contributed to the sensation that the post-countdown show was (in many ways) the best part of the whole week of 20th century broadcasting.

Musicians from outside Australia following my conversations about this #classic100 countdown via twitter were able to stream the radio broadcast via the net, so I ended up having fascinating conversations about this music with listeners in the Americas. They were amazed to see the final list; the inclusion of Australian composers they’d barely heard of and the dominance of English composers from the earliest reaches of the century being the most remarked-upon features of the countdown.This turned into a social history of Australia lesson for them, and a reminder to me that ‘classical music’ in Australia skews Anglo in ways that are unsustainable and undesirable.

One of my favourite tweeps, @gigglyfriday, did a running score of the Classic 100 countdown – by country. She hashtagged this #liketheOlympics, and right from the start those of us on twitter discussed the chances of the Russians taking out more places than the Brits. We thought the Brits would punch above their weight, but many of us were genuinely astonished to see the final countdown having Russia in 2nd place. I mean, even with just Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff you’d think the Russians would have it in the bag. But no, Britannia ruled.

Someone on twitter objected to the #liketheOlympics hashtag on the basis that if this were truly like the Olympics the Chinese would be in serious contention, and of course not a Chinese composer was within cooee of this list. It reminded me of a concert I attended in 2002 – a prominent Chinese orchestra was playing the Sydney Opera House, with something from the orchestral canon, a few pieces from Chinese composers, and something commissioned especially for the tour from an Australian composer. It was a great night out, but startling to me: the Opera House Concert Hall was filled with Australians of Chinese heritage, a demographic I’d never seen in any numbers at orchestral concerts before. That event, and the omission of particular kinds of musical voices from this countdown, remind me that our society is much broader than the pop v art music debates often allow.

Did I agree with the top 100 20th century pieces as voted by ABC Classic FM’s listeners? Well, no. But I absolutely agree with making 2oth century music something that is listened to and talked about, and not just in enclaves of aficionados (most of us with some kind of tertiary training in music), and not just within the narrow confines of self-defined classical music lovers or Classic FM listeners. A list such as this top 20th Century countdown provides a starting point – a place for disagreement, debate, delight and discovery, and from this point of view I agree very heartily indeed. May the conversations long continue….

Piano Lessons for Life: Don’t Correct Mistakes

Piano Lessons for Life: Don’t Correct Mistakes

Don't Correct Mistakes


One of the most profound life lessons I’ve learned as a piano teacher is to not correct mistakes.

Correcting mistakes can take up whole piano lessons, whole terms of piano lessons, whole lifetimes of piano lessons. It’s no fun for the teacher, even less so for the student, and what’s more it simply doesn’t do any good.

Correcting mistakes means that all the attention is drawn to what is being done wrong, rather than to what one should be aiming to do right. This is not a good tactic in improving performance (on the piano, on the tennis court, and keep extrapolating as suits your own activities); the performer’s focus is drawn inward to the mistake rather than outward to communicating clearly.

But correcting mistakes is an easy habit to fall into. A what-not-to-do list looks like ‘instruction’, and is much simpler to compile than a strategy for success, and that’s because at the piano (as in life) it’s often easier to articulate what we don’t want than what we do. And it’s easier to articulate what we don’t want because what we do want can change from one day or moment to the next. The right thing to do changes according to context: much easier to list forbidden behaviours than to inculcate the wisdom to select judicious courses of action.

For those of you unfamiliar with piano lessons, or for those of you whose piano lessons days are far behind you, here’s the rundown of a lesson where correcting mistakes is the means of ‘teaching’. Let’s say the student plays a scale, and stumbles on a particular note. The teacher usually has two options: one is to name the note the student should be playing, the other is to name the finger the student should be using. This results in piano lessons where the teacher wearily calls out “F sharp” whenever the student reaches that part of the scale, or where the teacher forcefully suggests “4” when the student goes to use a third finger.

The same kind of thing happens with students presenting repertoire they’ve been practising during the week: a wrong note, muffled articulation, or inappropriate dynamic expression. A teacher focussed on correcting mistakes will say things like “it’s a G“, “play staccato!”, “LOUD!!“. All piano teachers reading this: I know you will agree that you have certainly engaged in this kind of in-lesson communication at some point in your careers, maybe even this afternoon. And while each of these exhortations does focus on the preferred activity of the student (play a G instead of whatever fool note you are playing/those dots really do mean a short and detached sound so do it/play loudly because that’s what forte means, hello), they are responsive to a ‘mistake’, not to a vision of what the performance should or could be.

One of the best lines I’ve ever come across about piano teaching is this: Don’t correct mistakes, instead find the source of the error.

It doesn’t take too many years of teaching before you realise that a huge percentage of ‘mistakes’ come down to fingering. A student keeps hitting a wrong note? Check the fingering. A student struggles to play a passage legato? Check the fingering. And by check the fingering I don’t mean that the teacher should check that the student is playing the fingering as written in the book; I mean that the teacher should check that the fingering being used by the student actually facilitates the performance of the correct notes, articulations, rhythms, and so forth.

Of the many other possible sources of error there are two that account for nearly everything else that goes ‘wrong': a failure to notice and a failure to imagine. Rather than, for instance, inserting micromanaged dynamic instructions throughout a piece (and then rote-teaching these dynamics to students) a teacher can create learning experiences that strengthen a student’s interest in and ability to notice and to imagine, thus developing a performer who finds logical and emotionally engaging ways to present performances.

But the lesson for life here is both simple and profound: don’t correct mistakes, locate the source of the error.

Say you have a bill from your telco where you are being charged the wrong amount. You can call the company every month to dispute the bill and hopefully have it corrected, or you can find out why you are being charged the wrong amount and resolve the fundamental error that is leading to the mistaken total being billed to you. Finding (and resolving) the cause of the error will save you time (and probably money), not just in your piano practice but in your whole life.

Say you are setting your alarm for 7am but you are still running late for work/class/the bus each day. Rather than just trying to get ready faster, find out what the cause of the delay actually is: is your clock running five minute late? are you allowing 2 minutes for 4 minute walk to the bus stop? have you not factored time in for breakfast? Taking time to find the cause of the error (in piano practice as in life) allows you to make a good decision as to how to create effective change.

Say someone gossips about you, telling untruths in the process; in 21st century terms it could be talking about you on a facebook page or some other kind of (social or other) media. Protesting that things said about you are not true would be exactly like a piano teacher calling out “Don’t play quietly!” – all you are doing is drawing attention to the thing that is wrong! If you take the time to locate the source of the error in these social aspects of your life you’ll avoid making mistakes of your own, just as you will in your piano practice, but until the source of the error is discovered you will find new mistakes cropping up time and time again (in life as in piano). Deal with the source of the error and it is unlikely that mistakes will reappear.

To be continued.


Piano Lessons for Life

Piano Lessons for Life

Piano teaching has been a part of my life since birth (my mother resumed her at-home piano teaching when I was three weeks old) and a part of my professional existence since I was 14 and started giving lessons myself.

Teaching at such a young age provided many lessons to me beyond the usual teenage job learning curve: I had to create invoices, prepare materials, plan learning sequences, discuss the progress of students with their parents, coordinate timetabling, engage in professional development, and so forth. This learning curve was much facilitated by teaching under the watchful eye of a mentor-mother, but even so, these are considerable responsibilities for someone who won’t be allowed to vote for another 4 years.

The most challenging aspect of teaching as a 14 year old was, without doubt, talking with the parents. Fortunately my early students practised well enough, and everyone paid their fees on time, so two of the biggest piano teacher communication challenges weren’t on my early agenda.

What did interest me considerably at this stage, however, were the rationales parents gave for having their children take piano lessons. None of the parents had the least expectation that their children would grow up to be concert pianists (unsurprisingly, seeing as they were trusting their children’s pianistic education to a novice), but they all believed that learning a musical instrument would impart lessons for life. The most usual lesson anticipated by parents was the lesson of self-discipline.

Students who learned to practice each day on the piano would, it was assumed, then transfer this lesson of discipline to any other endeavour in which they might choose to engage throughout the rest of their lives. Of course, parents who truly value self-discipline have been instilling this virtue into their children from the day they are born, and piano lessons are merely another means of engaging medium- to long-term goal setting and accomplishment skills.

During the 80s and the 90s this theme was a parental constant: piano lessons were important as much as anything for the discipline they imparted to children who came within their thrall.

But in the past ten years there has been a massive shift in parental thinking as regards the life lessons that piano lessons can give. These days parents will be more concerned with children learning to think creatively, and with children having a skill they can engage in with others. This trend reflects research showing how making music engages the whole brain as well as a changing societal perception as to the attributes that will contribute to a happy life.

What hasn’t changed is the deep-down conviction that piano lessons are not just for music, they are for life.

My own “piano lessons are for life” epiphany occurred, curiously enough, in an undergraduate harmony class. I was a 16 year old first-year student, and my harmony class was to be the final year that Dr Douglas Mews was to be giving it. Douglas Mews was a well-known name in New Zealand education, having written the definitive classroom textbook on harmony, and I knew my classes would be memorable if for no other reason than they were the last classes Dr Mews would give.

What I did not anticipate was the extent to which these harmony classes were about how to live life well.

My favourite life lesson from Dr Mews was this: if you come across something or someone once you should make no especial effort to remember it – maybe it’s a completely random occurrence that you and this new thing/person have met; if, however, you come across something or someone a second time you should immediately make every effort to make its/her/his acquaintance thoroughly – these meetings are no accident and you will surely meet a third, fourth and fifth time.

This principle is excellent for mastering harmonic language in music, and just as superb for managing one’s interpersonal experiences. In short, it’s a lesson for life, well-taught by Dr Mews in my first year harmony class, immediately ringing true in terms of its musical application, and proving itself over and over as I have applied it in everyday circumstances.

After this particular harmony class I found myself changing the way I approached the piano lessons I was giving. Much of the time a lesson might be concerned with minutiae of piano performance, finding a way to tuck a thumb comfortably beneath the hand, exploring how finger shape alters tone, mastering a chord progression or understanding a new notation. But each and every piano lesson was also about life. Voicing is not just about creating a beautiful sound, it’s about appreciating how conversations work by paying attention to one voice at a time; form is not just about how a composer has structured the work, it’s about how we can make sense of our experiences; scales are not just tedious exercises to be prepared for examinations, they are palettes of possibility, demonstrating the power that limitations can unleash as well as the tedium that repression can enforce.

A student once said to me “You don’t just compose music, you compose everything!” after seeing the meal I had prepared for my family that night. That too, is a lesson to be taken away from the piano: life is not for following instructions, but rather principles.

Related to this idea: the page is the start, not the end – you cannot predict what people will do with your music, and they cannot predict what you will do with theirs, but either way it’s all just stuff someone’s made up to make sense of the world they live in, to make themselves feel better about the world and themselves, a way of dealing with their disappointments, fears, exhilarations and satisfactions.

Remembering this lesson gives piano students a template for dealing in a positive fashion with the gossip, rumour and outright lies that litter teenage and adult relationships.

To be continued….


What I did immediately after the opening night of ISCM 2010….

What I did immediately after the opening night of ISCM 2010….

I ran as fast as my comfortable but still high-heel shoes could take me back to the [wickedly expensive] car park down the road from the Sydney Conservatorium. Another audience member was heading the same way, but as he was much lankier of leg than I, and unencumbered by impractical footwear, we made about the same progress, he no doubt wondering what was motivating the lunatic clickclacking her way down Macquarie St to be doing so quite so very hot on his heels.

If he’d only known: I had to make it over to Dockside at Cockle Bay before the mains were served at the Walkley Press Freedom Dinner.

The parking gods were on my side, and I powerwalked my way across one of Sydney’s least attractive pedestrian overpasses and through the usual crowd milling outside Chinta Ria, past the name tag desk out the front of Dockside (my handwritten name tag suggesting my husband had forgotten my name when accepting the invitation), weaving my way through groups of women in cocktail and evening dress and super-clean cut young media types to table 13 to join the Qantas and former and current Radio 2UE breakfast show hosts, who’d already been availing themselves of the hospitality for 90 minutes prior to my arrival.

And they’d been availing themselves of the hospitality for good reason, it turned out. Wendy Harmer was the MC.

The entirety of Wendy Harmer’s career has passed me by, somehow or other, and while I’ve known who she was the entire time I’ve resided in Sydney (some 21 years now) but I’d never really had a chance to understand why.

After the Walkley Press Freedom dinner I found I was no wiser as to why I should have any idea who Wendy Harmer was is, although I had developed a profound understanding as to why maybe I should not. The newspapers politely reported that she effed her way through her duties, and that doesn’t even cover half of it. Every new foray at the microphone began with derogatory comments about and to the audience, ending with suggestions at to how we should all behave, this done mercifully without reference to the ‘c’ word, but Ms Harmer made full use of the rest of the alphabet throughout her various rants and imprecations.

Yes, folks, I had gone from the #ISCM sublime to the media pack ridiculous.

Of course, as any primary school teacher knows, this approach to crowd control is one of diminishing returns, and by the time I arrived c.8.35pm those returns had diminished to nil. No one was listening to a single colourful word she uttered.

On the bright side, as the main was being served we were introduced to the speaker for the evening. And the evening was, after all, about Press Freedom, with the images and stories of journalists who had been killed, imprisoned or ‘disappeared’ because of their work displayed on screens on either side of the podium throughout the night. So the dinner was all about some rather serious stuff.

But after nearly 2 hours of harassment by Wendy Harmer it was rather hard to take the guest speaker very seriously. It was like Billy Graham having Catherine Deveny, say, as his warm-up act.

No matter how dire the content of the speech it was hard to care terribly much. Speeches that tell of meeting wicked dictators who don’t keep their word seem rather unremarkable in 2010. Don’t we know that there will be no peace in our time? And am I being crazily naive to think that in Australia journalists understand/accept/believe a genuinely independent media is a good thing for society? It was preaching to converted who had already gotten pissed, so it must have been a tough gig for the imported dignitary.

Maybe not as tough for him as it was for the ‘entertainment’ that followed.

[Keep in mind that I’d already experienced 6 new music performances over at the Music Workshop at the Sydney Conservatorium at the opening night of the International Society for New Music World New Music Days. Yep, it was already seeming like a distant memory to me too, and this was only about 55 minutes after the conclusion of the ISCM concert.]

Queenie van de Zant is a singer/songwriter/cabaret performer I last saw in a one woman show at the Ensemble Theatre at the start of 2007. Her show was called “I Get the Music in You” and was a funny, very light entertainment based on a character who conducts music therapy classes. Queenie channelled a lot of characters in course of the show [music therapy class members], and as is usually the case the overall effect was impressive even if some characters were more convincing than others. But most importantly, Queenie sang very well indeed. So I pretty much knew what we were in for at the Walkley Press Freedom dinner.

Well, actually, that’s not true at all.

Turns out Queenie (whether in real life or simply because she thought it would be funny to say so in her introduction) doesn’t follow the news all that much, is not really keen on current affairs or politics, and certainly hasn’t opened a newspaper in more than a decade.

At this point (irrespective of whether it was true or a fictional conceit) the entire room stopped listening to her.

Which was just as well, because she had two songs for us that evening. The first, a version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, where Queenie sang to/about (hard to tell which) her marijuana-smoking grandmother. Yep, so the lyrics were altered. Note to cabaret artists: don’t change the lyrics to Somewhere Over the Rainbow and then sing them. All the audience is thinking is “you’re no Judy Garland”.

The second song was worse. As a result of not following the news too closely Queenie van de Sant decided to favour us with a song about economic tough times. It was called “After the Crash”. That would be the crash of 1987. For an industry which makes true the dictum “a week is a long time in politics” it may as well have been a song about the demise of the dinosaurs. A song about a current affairs issue from 22.5 years ago? Absolutely everyone on the planet has moved on (and on, and on again, some many times over), excepting our hapless performer. Add to that the fact that most journalists old enough to remember 1987 got retrenched by Fairfax some 18 months ago…. and, well, it was almost a relief to have Wendy Harmer back.

Of course, the real entertainment was to be found at our table. Witty, charming and ever-so-slightly naughty conversationalists make for a great evening, no matter what the official entertainment might be. And I love a good political story, so the only thing that tore us away before the auction end of the evening was that we couldn’t keep the babysitter sitting all night.

So by 11.15pm I was back at home with my [thankfully sleeping] toddler, thinking through the two very deeply incompatible experiences I’d had that night; musical, interpersonal, sartorial, digestive. There were so many more ideas present at the first event, so very little passion evident at the second. Between the silent auction and other fundraising aspects to the evening I’m sure the dinner raised a sum approaching or equal to the whole ISCM/Aurora Festival budget, but oh my goodness, at what a price….

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

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

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.