Sunday, June 17, 2012

Musicians need to keep in time

This post was written as an opinion piece for The Conversation.

The current crisis at the ANU School of Music has widely been reported as being, fundamentally, about money.  The ANU VC has cut ten academic and two general staff positions to address an operating deficit at the School of nearly $3 million per annum.  This is the fourth review of the School in twelve years, and by far the most drastic.  The resultant outrage in the community has been swift and vociferous: a largely middle-class Canberra population has reacted angrily to what it perceives as an assault on high culture.  Almost all the reporting of the story has focused on a very simple black-and-white opposition: the profound and inestimable value and deeply humanizing practice of arts in general and music in particular, versus a corporate culture of management, bureaucracy and bean-counting.

But are things really that simple?

Nearly all music schools in Australia are in financial crisis.  The ANU has made headlines simply because its response has been swift and uncompromising.  But all seven of the nation’s traditional conservatoires are struggling to make ends meet.   Many have blamed the level of Federal Government funding for music as inadequate, and indeed the 2011 Lomax-Smith review of university funding found this to be the case.  But the situation is the same or worse overseas: music schools are operating in increasingly straitened circumstances, and their graduates are finding it increasingly difficult to get employment in the area of elite classical music performance in which they are being trained.

But this is all very curious, because the arts themselves, and the creative industries, are booming.  A 2010 report by the Australia Council, More than bums on seats: Australian participation in the arts found that Australians’ engagement with the arts, both as creators and consumers, was increasing.  Young people especially were becoming more engaged with the art and music, and across the population there was a growing sense of the importance of the arts to society’s wellbeing.  Importantly, the internet was identified as an increasingly important means of engaging with the arts, with one in three Australians already using the internet to engage with art in some form.  These statistics are borne out by the economic figures.  A 2009 economic analysis of the creative industries in Australia found that the creative industries (including music) contributed around 3% to our GDP (more than the agriculture or energy industries), and moreover over ten years was growing at 5.8% p.a. -  nearly twice the rate of the economy as a whole.  It’s a good news story of flourishing artistic practice and community engagement that is increasingly bringing both social benefits and hard cash to the Australian people.

So why are all our music schools going broke?

The issue is one of relevance.  

Looking at the history of music, we see that quite regularly, there are moments of tectonic shift in the styles, economics and technologies that underpin music-making.  In the 1920s in Australia there were thousands of freelance professional musicians in Australia – more than four thousand in Sydney alone - earning their keep performing in cafes, music halls, theatres, and movie theatres, playing to accompany silent films.  That all changed in the space of five years.  The invention of the ‘talkie’ – the film with sound – spelled an end to the movie-house orchestra.  The rapid spread of radio, and the foundation of the ABC in 1932, saw professional music-making start shift out of the cafe and music hall and into the studio.  The Depression accelerated the changes – why would a cash-strapped restauranteur hire a dance band every night when he could buy a radio?  

This led to the institutionalisation of classical music in Australia.  Under the aegis of the ABC, by 1960 there was a much smaller number of elite performers, mainly comprising the orchestras in each state capital.  Each capital had a music school with a curriculum designed to produce players to support that orchestra .  The curriculum included rigorous performance training in the classical tradition; aural skills and theory for sight-reading; a survey-style overview of classical music history.
Astonishingly, more than fifty years later, this same curriculum either still exists, or has existed quite recently, in Australian music schools.  Yet almost every other aspect of music-making has changed.

The modern music professional needs to be fluent in a wide variety of styles – classical, jazz, contemporary and cross-cultural.  He or she needs to be familiar with a quickly changing range of technologies for the creation, notation, recording, manipulation and dissemination of music.  He or she needs to understand the shifting nature of the music business, requiring a single individual to at different times (or simultaneously) play the role of performer, educator, entrepreneur, and producer, and take advantage of music-making opportunities far beyond the concert hall, but in schools, community groups, studios, art galleries, hospitals, and increasingly online, in computer games and other applications.  Above all, as modern and younger Australians engage with the arts as participants not just passive “consumers”, the modern professional musician needs to be able to facilitate the music-making of others , at a whole range of standards, not just be an expert practitioner themselves.

There are some shining examples in Australia of curricula that have arisen to meet the needs of the modern world – those at QUT, the University of Newcastle, and the University of South Australia spring to mind.  But the old, traditional conservatoires have struggled to keep up.  Unless they do, I fear the agonies of cuts and forced restructure currently being visited on ANU School of Music are bound to be repeated elsewhere.

1 comment:

  1. Aren't there anyone told you that they come to ANU to pursue a traditional conservatory style training, that they come to ANU because they want to become a professional 'old, traditional' style musician?

    What you want to do is to end the old thing and start up a new thing completely, rather than turn SoM into it. Otherwise it is unfair to the current students who chose ANU because they want to do the traditional classical music.

    Of course you can train a high school kid to make burgers at mcd*****'s. Why would you need a good cook if you can get cheap burgers? Gourmet food is probably struggling to keep up as well.