My old school, the Australian National University School of Music, or Canberra School of Music to old Canberrans, has been in the news the last week or so after it’s parent, the ANU, rushed an announcement that essentially declared all teaching staff jobless and the current curriculum dead, replacing one-on-one and studio teaching with digital delivery and a huge increase in non-performance topics.
The reaction from the Canberra music community was swift and noisy. Change is difficult, and no-one likes to see people lose their jobs, but this was more than standard sympathy. The School of Music is a rare institution: Canberra is a small town, the SoM staff are beloved, respected and more than a few are literally part of the foundations of music in Canberra and Australia: Prof. Larry Sitsky has been a fixture at the School since it’s opening in 1966 and is highly respected composer, pianist and academic. David Pereira is a hero of Australian cello. Col Hoorweg is the guru behind dozens of celebrated Australian drummers. I myself was born in the late 1970′s to two School of Music students, and by the time I studied jazz performance there myself the Jazz faculty had not only taught, but mentored and nurtured many of the current generation of Australian jazz musicians. Music study at an institution like the ANU School of Music is not a cold academic transaction, it is an important and deeply personal experience for young musicians.
I was motivated to write an opinion piece on the subject last week because I felt that those connected to the school – current students, alumni, current and former staff – were reacting very vocally and passionately without articulating in detail the reasoning behind their opposition. Meanwhile, the ANU had explained reasonably well their workings behind the plan and the intended benefits (For more on that, the initial press conference is worth a watch if you have 30 minutes to spare). I had assumed that the defining element of the debate was that the University and it’s music students were ineffectively communicating their needs and challenges to each other, when in reality perhaps they are like a mismatched couple who, after having committed to each other in headier days, actually have little in common.
My aim was to explain that in threatening the current staff and weakening the role of teachers in the curriculum, the School was dismantling the structure that made it what is today;
A higher education degree in music is rarely motivated primarily by consideration to “graduate destinations”. The fact is students of music simply aren’t interested in the pragmatic elements of a tertiary music education, and the reason is simple: the attractiveness of a reputable conservatorium of music lies in the quality and the nature of the staff and the student body.
I wish I’d waited a few days because almost immediately afterwards several interesting thing happened:
Firstly, the ANU Vice Chancellor Ian Young appeared on the ABC’s 7:30 report, in which he almost directly responded to my writing – undoubtably unwiitingly – by explaining that despite the protests from the current student body, the future of the School in his eyes was about a completely different kind of student, with different needs and goals.
Additionally, one of the architects of change, the Head of School, Professor Adrian Walter, disappeared almost immediately after the announcement to take up a similar post in Hong Kong. As Head, Prof Walter was a wearer of potentially conflicting hats seeing as that role involves being simultaneously Chief of the Musos and University’s Ambassador to the Musicians. Prof. Walter may have been the only musically literate mind advising the University in the lead up to the announcement.
The latest development, a positive one, is that Canberra businesses and community groups are working with the ANU to help cover some of the budget shortfall the University has subsidised for what is probably decades, a response welcomed by the Vice Chancellor, largely because it menas the severity of cuts to student contact hours can be diminished, and the elite nature of the performance training less adversely affected.
The two themes that the University and (former) Head Prof. Walter have consistently pushed are the School’s operating deficit, and what they see as the necessary curriculum for the multi-tasking musician of today. However the complexity of their responses seem to undermine the ‘new curriculum’ mandate: Prof. Walter’s has bolted to Hong Kong a hated figure, seemingly to escape the axeman’s job whilst some rumours suggest he was privately opposed to the plan, and VC Prof. Young’s positively gushed in relief at the community’s funding pledge, after dismissing the relevance of the current model firmly in his 7:30 Report appearance.. This makes it difficult to asses what really is at stake here: is the University trying to sell a whole ‘new’ kind of vocational anti-elite music education, purely to facilitate budget cuts? Or is there a genuine interest in moving in this direction regardless of alternative measures to cover the high funding costs of studio-based learning in a field like elite music performance.
Firing the staff and transforming an institution overnight is bound to be messy, anything this sudden is probably ill-advised. However, there’s little doubt that it’s valid to debate the format of conservatorium music education considering how much a music career has changed since most Australian conservatoriums opened.