I was very lucky. I had a first-rate education at a school that gave me a love of literature, respect for science, and insight to the currents of history. It gave me a grasp of how language works, a basic understanding of the great paradigms of thought, and the confidence to see myself playing a part in shaping the world around me.
Above all, it gave me curiosity, a love of ideas, and the desire to spend my life sharing them as a teacher.
What my education didn’t give me was any knowledge or appreciation of music. Aside from a perfunctory junior curriculum and some desultory instrumental lessons, all too little and too late for a term or two in early high school, I emerged – not unlike many students – from thirteen years of schooling with musical notation to remain a lifelong mystery, with no knowledge of the history and development of world music beyond the name of Mozart, and no idea of how to listen to the sounds that moved my instincts but left my intellect and imagination floundering.
I don’t blame the school. The choices and priorities of my education were mine and my parents’. As I said, I was very fortunate in my education, and I do what I do professionally because of it. In fact, for those selected to its music stream, my school was a recognised centre of excellence for music education. It still is, although now in a far more inclusive way, and for the better. But therein lies my point.
Music education must not be only for those already with the background or the early talent or the pre-existing motivation to access it.
Music education must be for all, because music itself is for all.
Just like language and literature, which are at the compulsory core of the curriculum, music is the expression of culture and is pervasive to our daily experience. It surrounds us on the airwaves of radio, television and streaming in all the glory and diversity of its genres.
It influences our thoughts and moods and choices. We exercise, drive, shop, eat and celebrate with music. It’s intrinsic to our wellbeing, our social interaction, our spiritual and sensual experience, and to our religious, national and cultural rites.
Most people listen to more music than they read literature; yet, even as an English teacher, I wonder why we make education in the latter mandatory while we leave the former much to choice and chance.
More than that, though, we know well, both instinctively and through academic study over decades, the powerful positive effect of music on education itself. Learning music has a significant impact on auditory processing that is vital to early language acquisition and reading development.
The same applies to the cognitive capacity acquired in learning music for the structuring, sequencing and pattern discernment that are essential to mathematics, scientific reasoning, analysis and argument.
Likewise, the disciplining of concentration and memory that comes from learning music has obvious benefits for all subjects. Music education also nurtures emotional comprehension, sympathy and self-regulation, all of which have profound behavioural advantages for learning, as do the social and collaborative skills developed in the experience of rehearsing and performing in ensemble.
Of course, there is also music’s profound positive effect on emotional and physiological wellbeing, which is all the more important in a time when educators everywhere are grappling with the means of addressing student anxiety and mental health.
Yet, crowded out by the content-heavy demands of the Australian Curriculum, music for most Australian school students is often relegated, along with the other arts, to the offcuts of the timetable – a lesson here and there each fortnight – or to a carousel of subjects sampled for a term in early high school in the hope of informing course choices for the upper years.
Even the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, an otherwise outstanding educational programme that is premised on the value of a fully-rounded education, allows the creative and performing arts to be the only domain of learning dropped in favour of extra learning in the other fields.
The excuse is that music can be co-curricular, which is true and is an opportunity for tremendous learning and enjoyment. But, once again, that leaves music education to those with the background or the talent or the pre-existing motivation to find the time for it between sport and other activities, homework and friends, after school employment and the demands of domestic life.
Hence, co-curricular music so often takes place not during or after school but in the only slot left: before school from 7:15 am, that well-known time when children and teenagers are at their receptive best (not!), and when attendance usually depends on extra parental dedication to the early morning commute; never mind the devotion required of the teachers at that time.
It is extraordinary that we consign a discipline with such demonstrable educational, social and personal value so readily to the periphery of the curriculum. That’s why, in my school, we are putting music education, literally front and centre.
Our new music department and auditorium will be deliberately at the very doorstep and heart of our campus, making the experience of music – whether as a learner, a performer, a teacher or a listener – intrinsic to our daily sounds, movements and rhythm, before school, during the day, after school, on weekends and during school holidays.
It has been an enormous project, years in the making, and tremendously complicated due to the disruptions of the pandemic, but we are proud to be opening four superb new acoustically designed classrooms that double as performance spaces, along with eighteen instrumental or vocal tuition rooms, which together will replace and multiply the capacity of our previous music department, whose phenomenal staff have long struggled to serve a school of over 2000 students from a pair of leaky 1970s classrooms and a handful of tiny, scattered tuition spaces.
Adjacent will be the superb new Snow Concert Hall, named for its benefactor, Mr Terry Snow AM, the Canberra-born entrepreneur and philanthropist who made it possible through the largest personal endowment to any school in Australian history.
It is an exceptional gift to music education that not only gives the school capacity to hold orchestral, ensemble, bands and choral concerts of varying size and style, but it also enriches the musical landscape of Australia’s capital with a much-needed mid-sized concert venue for local artists, community music groups, visiting orchestras and youth music programmes.
Our challenge now is to make the vision behind the project reality: to make it not just a building but a place that sings to the soul of our community, both within and beyond the school; to set a new standard by making music central to our curricular and our co-curricular life; and to reach out in concert with other schools and educators to make music education thrive, not just for the lucky, the talented and the motivated few, but for all in the generations to come whose life and learning may be enriched by all that music gives.