Opinion: music according to Orwell

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Professors Walter and Warrington at the press conference yesterday
IN an announcement replete with Orwellian phrases, the vice chancellor of the ANU, Prof Ian Young, yesterday jettisoned the School of Music’s professional and general staff and cast its students adrift on a sea of mediocrity.

Small matter that the formal announcement started on a high note – “Bachelor of Music for the 21st century” promising an “innovative program of study” that would be “more flexible, more connected with the community”, “a sector-leading new curriculum” and “creative and comprehensive approach to regeneration”, the reality was that the cash-strapped school, one of Australia’s most distinguished musical conservatories before it amalgamated with the University in 1992, would no longer be able to function as a centre of high level instrumental and vocal music practice.

Few were impressed by the university’s assurances of “richer opportunities” and “significant technological advances” in the new-look Bachelor of Music.

Even the prospect of a “professional development allowance” of about $600 a semester failed as a sweetener. After all, in opening up to students the choice of instrumental classes, studies of music criticism, learning a new piece of software or whatever, and the bleak reality was that with this choice the capacity to train elite musicians would be lost.

No doubt, as the present head of the School of Music, Prof Adrian Walters said there were pedagogical advantages to the new degree, which would attract potential teachers, generalists from regional Australia, double degree students, and second-tier musicians still defining their focus.

No doubt, too, as deputy vice-chancellor (academic) Prof Marnie Hughes-Warrington observed, wholesale sacking was the only way to go to make cuts to the School’s $2.7 million annual shortfall in an equitable and transparent manner, though representatives of the student media questioned why Prof Walter’s own position had been quarantined (the answer was that he had shown “leadership” in cooperating with the ANU to achieve its objectives).

Promises of a “bold step”, an “entirely new program” and “authentic learning”, video-linked sessions with the Manhattan School of Music and partnerships with organisations like the Canberra International Music Festival could not assuage the disappointment with which music students greeted the news.

Some charged that the School was about to become a TAFE college.

A TAFE college, Walters noted correctly, is precisely what the new Bachelor of Music will not resemble, for the essence of technical colleges is that they focus on practice, and that, it quickly emerged, is what would suffer most, with the present level of around 13 hours per semester in one-to-one contact with instrumental teachers likely to be reduced to six to seven hours.

Prof Walters argued that a fresh think about music education was the only way to go. The Lomax-Smith 2011 review of higher education funding had confirmed that government funding does not cover the cost of one-to-one music tuition and music had been identified as one of six disciplines (the others were not named) that could no longer be supported under old models.

To Walters the alternative being pursued in other institutions was gradual “pruning, pruning until it nearly disappears” and endless rounds of reviews.

The decision to declare all staff jobs vacant, Professors Warrington and Walter explained to media yesterday, would allow the school to hire professionals “with a different skills set” that might include ability to teach online music and composition.

Prof Walters said, for instance, that theory could be taught through composition.

The new staff would no doubt include some of the old staff, who would be given the option to apply for jobs before outside applications were invited if they reapplied. But, as Prof Warrington explained, “the staffing must align with the curriculum model”.

While there are now 23 full-time professional staff (as well as  eight to 10 general staff), about 13 full-time professional staff will suffice for the new degree and it is expected that the staff changes will be effected within several months to be up and running by 2013.

Prof Warrington said this was an irrevocable decision and in order to get the school to “live within its means”, the changes would go ahead willy-nilly.

To many sections of the community, it was a shocking move.

Canberra Symphony Orchestra CEO Henry Laska said, “we acknowledge the devastating impact today’s announcement is having on them [staff] and their families”, adding, “we believe that a curriculum such as this will not attract leading performance staff, which in turn means that the top performing pre?tertiary students may not come to Canberra”.

Others weighing-in included School of Music masters graduate and classical guitarist Matthew Withers, who wrote to “CityNews” of the “huge possibilities and achievements that arise from proper individual performance tuition”.

“Within the year after graduating with a Masters in Performance,” he wrote, “I was appointed Head of Guitar at a University College of Music. My music is performed on world wide radio stations. I have given multiple performances for Australia’s leading Classical Music companies. ABC Classic FM (live, nation-wide broadcasts) as well as Musica Viva concerts – and these were just in my post-grad years.”

The decision announced yesterday has uncovered a deep cultural divide between the purposes of an artistic academy and an academic approach where, as ANU puts it, graduates “need to be highly skilled creative artists, who are business and technology savvy, with entrepreneurial skills and a good basis in teaching practice”.

While entrepreneurial and teaching skills need attention, the primary motivation for most music students has until now been learning to perform.

It may be, as Prof Walters suggested, that only a small percentage ever become brilliant soloists, but most young people embarking on a career as an actor, dancer, painter, sculptor or musician aim for the stars first and make the pragmatic adjustments necessary to survive later.

This decision byAustralia’s foremost university, made in the face of its own financial crisis, will disappoint many people in a city long-steeped in fine music, much of it emanating from the School.

If music be the food of expediency, what next?

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Helen Musa
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