The future of classical music is in young hands. Elisabeth Wynhausen reports from the National Music Camp
MUSIC pours out of almost every room. An orchestra is rehearsing Prokofiev’s thumping Symphony No. 5 in an auditorium tucked between the classrooms. A few doors down a lone clarinettist is going over his part in Bela Bartok’s The Miraculous Mandarin . A brass ensemble playing Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks is being recorded in a makeshift recording room around the corner. The plangent sound of violins drifts from a room on the other side of the courtyard.
Following auditions months ago, 239 of the nation’s top young musicians have made it to the 60th annual National Music Camp, held in the picturesque, ivy- covered surroundings of Canberra Grammar School.
There is a teenage cellist with streaked hair whom everyone knows as ‘‘ Dave from Darwin’’ — 19- year- old accountancy student David Parry — and a teenage bassoonist from Adelaide, 16- year- old Jack Schiller, one of the youngest musicians to make it into the Australian Youth Orchestra, which opened its 2008 season in Melbourne with a free concert at the Myer Music Bowl last month.
More than 70 per cent of people playing in orchestras in Australia came through the AYO, says Colin Cornish, the organisation’s chief executive. The AYO, which began life in 1948 as the first National Music Camp, is regularly hailed as one of the best youth orchestras in the world, despite the annual turnover.
These days the AYO runs a series of training programs, including the fortnight- long camp for 14 to 24- year- olds, which is held in a different capital each summer.
‘‘ I can’t think of a better way to introduce them to the joy and the passion of music,’’ says harp player Marshall McGuire, the camp’s music director, who was recently appointed executive manager of artistic planning with the West Australia Symphony Orchestra.
Students join one of the camp’s two orchestras or the chamber orchestra for the duration and are thrown into the thick of it, with 12- hour days of rehearsals, workshops and tutorials, before they give orchestral concerts open to the public and broadcast on ABC Classic FM. As they’re only handed the music when they get to camp, giving them a few days at most to familiarise themselves with the score of such grown- up works as the Prokofiev or Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings in E Major, the experience replicates the pressures of life as a professional musician.
Last year Melbourne University student Peter Clark, 19, a violinist, toured Europe with the AYO. Now he’s at music camp with his 17- yearold brother William, a viola player. They are the children of concert pianist Karen Clark, and the brothers were members of the Tasmanic string quartet while at primary school in Hobart, which makes them veteran performers. But music camp presented Peter Clark with another challenge. Two days before it started, he was asked to fill in as concertmaster in a performance being broadcast live on ABC Classic FM.
‘‘ It was daunting at first, but it’s all part of it,’’ he says, stretching his shoulders as he talks, loosening up after the long hours of rehearsals, another foretaste of his future profession.
‘‘ Music camp is the turning point for many young musicians,’’ says Mary Vallentine, chair- woman of the AYO board and a former managing director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. ‘‘ They make a decision about whether or not to become a professional.’’
Many of the professional musicians working as tutors are principal players in orchestras. That means the present generation of orchestral performers, ensemble group members and soloists is passing on its knowledge and experience to the next generation, which in turn will also pass it on.
‘‘ Here are ( nearly) 240 incredibly talented kids working with incredibly talented tutors at a really high level,’’ says Richard Gill, music director of the Victorian Opera and one of three conductors at the camp. But Gill, a first- rate teacher, believes that they have survived a system that is failing most Australian schoolchildren. ‘‘ Music is a specialist subject, but children right around Australia do not have access to specialist music teachers,’’ he says.
Some years ago the National Review of School Music Education by the Centre for Learning, Change and Development at Murdoch University in Western Australia reached a similar conclusion: ‘‘ Music education in Australian schools is at a critical point where prompt action is needed to right the inequalities in school music.’’ The 2005 report quoted findings from several hundred schools across the nation. ‘‘ A significant minority’’ of schools did not provide any music education. In many other schools, according to the report, ‘‘ music is taught by a range of teachers, some without qualifications in music or education’’.
Though the federal government made some money available for developing a music curriculum, nothing was done about teacher education. ‘‘ Now state committees are starting to prepare submissions for the new federal Government,’’ Gill says. He knows what he’d do about it. ‘‘ You start in kindergarten with singing. So children can sing together, in tune.
‘‘ From their singing they learn to read and write notation. And they learn a great repertoire of songs. At the age of five and six, they’re learning to count, to read, to encode, to decode,’’ he says. ‘‘ There will never come a time in their lives again when the brain will be so ready to assimilate that information.’’
Gill, 66, an engaging man with a shock of white hair, is soon in front of his young orchestra again, conducting another rehearsal of Beethoven’s magnificent Egmont overture. Suddenly he freezes, looking more than ever like one of Gerard Hoffnung’s cartoon maestros.
‘‘ I can tell you categorically that is absolutely how it doesn’t go,’’ he says dramatically. Some have failed to read what musicians call the dynamics and are playing too softly.
There are shocked looks at Gill, who rapidly assures them: ‘‘ It has nothing to do with me — it’s on the page.’’
When he steps from the tiny podium, Gill again suggests that the students at music camp can be counted among the lucky few. He prefers to think it’s ‘‘ very good teaching that turned these ordinary kids into extraordinary kids. Why shouldn’t every child have that opportunity: not to make them the best flute player in Australia, but to give them the chance?’’
In many other countries music is systematically taught to all children, not merely the most gifted, he says.
In fact, the model of music education now being copied in more than 20 countries did not
originate in the northern hemisphere’s capitals of culture but in Venezuela, where children from every background attend free music classes in a government- funded program that also provides them with instruments.
Known as El Sistema, the National Network of Child and Youth Orchestras of Venezuela was dreamed up in 1975 by a government minister who also happened to be a musician. He thought classical music would offer many slum children a way out of poverty and crime, and he proved to be right.
Now there are 200 orchestras across the country. Venezuelans revere their young classical musicians as if they were football heroes or rock stars. ‘‘ Conductors like Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado are queuing up to conduct these kids,’’ says ABC radio presenter Christopher Lawrence. El Sistema’s most famous graduate is the sought- after conductor Gustavo Dudamel, 27, who has been named as the next music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
In Australia, in contrast, children can study music without ever coming into contact with an instrument or having to sing anything’’, Gill says. The Murdoch University review found that
only a small proportion of schools have designated instrumental or vocal programs’’.
There are enlightened teachers and schools that are doing better; and then there are musicians such as husband and wife Kees Boersma and Kirsty McCahon, who are at music camp to tutor double bass players.
Boersma is principal bass with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra; McCahon is principal bass with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. Their two sons attend Leichhardt Public School, where Boersma and McCahon set up a string group in 2005.
As the primary school in Sydney’s inner- west already had a terrific band program for Year 3 students, McCahon and Boersma created a program they called Welcome to the wonderful world of music’’ for students in kindergarten and in years 1 and 2. We’ve fortunately got a principal at Leichhardt who actively encouraged it,’’ McCahon says.
Of the 260 children in the school, 50 of the littlies turn up to play violin or cello. ‘‘ We fundraised for the instruments,’’ she says.
McCahon and her husband also attended state schools, and ‘‘ we wanted to show you do not have to go to an expensive private school to play an instrument’’. They spend at least 10 hours a week each volunteering at the school.
Sure, we could be spending the 10 hours earning more bucks, but as far as I’m concerned . . . the 10 hours I put in at the school are much more important for my family and my society,’’ says McCahon, a raven- haired beauty who’s fiery on the subject of music education.
Having children learning music gets all other parts of their brains going. We know that. We have the studies that show it. We can’t afford not to educate them in music.’’
Fortunately, promising young musicians keep emerging against the odds.
The brass ensemble at National Music Camp includes petite, dark- eyed Deepa Goonetilleke, 22, a French horn player who successfully auditioned for the Australian Youth Orchestra this year.
Born and raised in Queensland, Goonetilleke, who has just graduated from the conservatorium with first- class honours in music, is from a Sri Lankan family. Being a musician is not a traditional career for a Sri Lankan girl,’’ she says. Her parents are professionals. They were expecting me to do medicine.’’ Instead she is auditioning for conservatoriums in Germany, where she hopes to further her studies.
But being at music camp means she has already met many of her future colleagues.
‘‘ By the end of camp you have this great network of people that will probably last you a lifetime,’’ she says.
Finetuning: Clockwise from main picture, Richard Gill conducts one of the orchestras at the National Music Camp in Canberra; music director Marshall McGuire; Gill; musical brothers William ( left) and Peter Clark