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Edition 23

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Memoir

The liberating discipline

THE RICH PROCESS of life is all about the acquisition and application of knowledge. How we manage our life attests to our own abilities and character as reinforced and nourished from our home environments, the reliability and quality of our formal education and the ways in which we are enabled to manage and grow from those experiences. I am the product of a public school education: West Ryde Infants, West Ryde Primary and Marsden State High School. I remember my teachers well: Mrs Reneike in kindy; Mrs McGrath and Mrs Anderson in first and second class. These women encouraged me not to be shy about my curiosity. To them I owe my devotion to and love of reading. The gruff old Mr Maloney in third class, the brilliant Mrs Conway in fourth, the cane-devoted Mr Pollock in fifth and the rather tired old warrior Mr Heard in sixth, a man who seemed to me to be simply seeing his days out.

Secondary school was entirely different – lots of teachers and a host of new experiences. Many, I realise for better or worse, have impacted on my view of the world. People like Mr Clarke in science, Miss McCauley in Latin, Mr Raskall and Mr Hawkins in mathematics, and Mr Townsend and Mr Botham in history provided settings that have been central to my thinking ever since; so too Andy Watson in economics, Pam Kidd in visual arts and Francis Spillane in English and drama, who were all amongst the first adults who relaxed with me using their first names in private. Above all there was my music tutor, Richard Gill, and the head of physical education, Maureen Fryer, both of whom remain close friends and to whom I owe so much.

This conjuring is more than just a recital of names. All of us reflect too infrequently on the debt we owe our teachers. The role of the teacher is precious and it horrifies me how undervalued it is in our society today. Undervalued not only as a vocation but also in selection, training, remuneration and resourcing. I'm not being Pollyanna about this process. I have firm views about the way in which many elements of our public system have contributed to an erosion in standards and aspirations in education. Much in contemporary public education derives from a variety of curriculum malfunctions, most particularly the indescribably stupid position that a nation with a small population still has no national curriculum and no immediate prospect of achieving one.

It is breathtaking that our nineteenth century colonial heritage with six little empire outposts still permeates the most fundamental building block of a modern state – its education framework. That framework – its logic, creativity, relevance and resilience – is central to national confidence, direction and improvement. In today's world, one's future is inextricably linked to the nation's intellectual capacity, social flexibility and resourceful responsiveness when it comes to dealing with challenges.

Many of the systemic and industrial rigidities in public education across our nation – and the degree varies by state – are stultifying and do little to ensure a dynamic responsive contemporary and connected approach to the evolution of school education. That evolution must occur rapidly if we are to continue aiming for the delivery of the type of modern polity central to ensuring the welfare of our people and their future quality of life.

There is much work to be done.

The quality of a national education system should have several absolutely fundamental tenets. The first is reliable, non-negotiable national standards and curriculum frameworks; next comes close delivery connections to local schools and school districts, including the empowerment of school principals to appoint and assess teachers so that their performance is directly accountable in the same way that performance accountability is fundamental to all modern commercial and public life. In the interests of fairness and equity, the resource imbalance between public and private should be addressed and must correct the systemic distortions that have eroded public education. The approach and attitudinal fabric to the role, remuneration, training, assessment and reinforcement of teachers requires wholesale renovation so that we capture talented people making teaching their first choice of career and ensure that choice is satisfying and fulfilling. There must also be an unwavering commitment to excellence – one that ensures the talented are encouraged and appropriately reinforced. Finally, there must be a real commitment to the importance of mainstream delivery of the arts and sport from infant education onwards; a yin and yang approach is essential in engendering a fit, intellectually vigorous and well-resourced nation that is healthy and empowered to confront its challenges effectively.

 

AUSTRALIA IS IMBUED with an unusually talented resource of active and original creative individuals quite disproportionate to its size. That resource, however, has an uneven education and resource framework compromising the nation's capacity to retain talent and drive consistent effort that evolves and improves as boldly as it must to serve the people's best interest.

The challenge before us is how to work to secure an effective government policy framework that will understand and embrace the need to transform the status and position of creative endeavour and creative professionals in our society.

I take it as a given that all the richest and most energetic societies position creativity as central to their health and wellbeing. Creative endeavour has never been more fundamental to developing a modern society if we want one that is flexible, energetic, open to change and will reinforce and celebrate the intellectual capacity, capability and originality of Australians worldwide. From a national commitment to creative endeavour – invention, employment, debate – national confidence and good social values inevitably follow. History provides our body of evidence. Our own histories do too.

Music is fundamental to my view of the world and the enjoyment of it, providing a natural prism through which I observe and perceive things. A connection to music means I never really stand back and think about the world deductively or didactically. I always have music in my head – I carry it around and it resonates in me. Music is fundamental not just to a well-rounded education but to an expansive world view.

Music teaches us about things not discussed or emphasised in our lives generally or sufficiently – it teaches us about beauty and the enduring value of human creativity. While music – like all the arts – provides emotional nourishment, it is particularly special because it is so often not about words or images or our terrestrial world but rather about invoking inner feelings and primal activators in us all – another mental and emotional landscape we can experience.

Music is the only creative art found in all human cultures – universally necessary and central to life whether in an African forest, an Arabic souk or a formal concert hall. It features virtuosity in many guises and in many places. It can be about the simplest, purest notions of love or the most complex romantic expressions of the feelings, conflicts and bonds between people. It offers us an expression of the pantheon of human experience from the most vulgar to the sublime. Music is central to sacred devotions and to our most frivolous and delicious entertainments. It is one of the most aspirational and inspirational phenomena for youth across our planet. Music can provide deep satisfaction through playing, composing, dancing or listening. It is fabulously portable and now pervasively available. It provides creative partnership to enhance excitement, atmosphere and meaning in other arenas of human creativity such as the theatre, film or television.

What is fundamentally important about music, and what makes it so very special, is that it uses a sense from which we are most often desensitised – our hearing. Sight, taste, touch and smell are all senses we can switch off. We can't switch off our hearing, therefore we generally have much less awareness of and sensitivity to the aural universe – so often a cacophony – that surrounds us.

We are inured to white noise and as a result we are poor listeners, whether that is to something being said or to the rich aural domain provided by any number of musics. Music is quite simply central to a well-rounded education and to ensuring that we are taught to listen, feel and think.

 

I FIRST FELL seriously in love with music when I was twelve and took up the clarinet at school through the encouragement of my music tutor and closest male friend to this day, Richard Gill. I arrived at the clarinet by way of the flugelhorn and before that the banjo. Much to my pleasure, when I enrolled at Marsden High School in Ermington I was offered an instrument. Public schools in those days (principally because of the initiative of the remarkable and quite eccentric Terry Hunt, Chief Inspector for Music in secondary schools) provided starter instruments.

I learnt clarinet first from Reg Bryson. a peripatetic teacher who would arrive at my house in his FJ Holden on Tuesday afternoons promptly at 4 pm. A nice guy but a pretty ordinary teacher. Then I went to the Conservatorium and studied with Douglas Gerke and finally with the great musician Donald Westlake – a truly fine player who was the second major adult influence on me after Richard. It was there I got a pair of Symphony 1010 clarinets – a major moment.

I learnt the daily discipline that only a musical instrument or advanced level sport can instil in a young person. I practised constantly: before school, at school, during the lunch hour and after school. Initially, I was second clarinettist in the school orchestra then became the first when the girl on whom I had my first schoolboy crush – Ann Warwick – left after completing her school certificate in Fourth Form as it was then called.

During the final two years of high school, I was able to join the Public Schools Concert Orchestra which rehearsed on Saturdays in the Education Department's Glebe premises. From Third Form I started actively composing my own music, and that was to continue until I was in my thirties. I have learnt many great life lessons from music. There is a degree of professional accountability for one's work and its content that can generate critical response in ways that can be quite character forming. I have always been open to professional feedback and criticism, and similarly have never been fearful to provide it. There can be no doubt that quality follows from the rigorous standards which apply in music – where criticism and critical engagement are part and parcel of the profession.

Australians generally do not receive criticism well and our inability to receive criticism is matched only by our inability to provide it in ways which are thoughtful, caring, constructive and nourishing.

In music, the situation is quite different. Music is built on layers of disciplined study. The process requires one to develop a disciplined approach which not only welcomes criticism but actively seeks it out. Music and its health, like many of the arts, are dependent on a fairly forensic approach to review and assessment. The notion of absolute standards is central to mainstream Western music cultures not only in classical music but in jazz, rock'n'roll and popular light forms of music as well. Music also teaches us expansive tolerance and acceptance of variegated self-expression central to the experience and practice of it.

The selfless sense of community and interdependence reflected in much of the practice of the arts, from the obvious teamwork in music performance through to the collaborative elements so central to modern video media, is a valuable resource.

Music made many of my peers strong and resourceful managers, and gave us confidence and resilience. For me, one of the greatest sources of renewal and satisfaction has been in my discovery of and devotion to chamber music. It is music making at its most precious: intimate, intense, conversational, fiery, dramatic and at times so ethereally beautiful that it literally takes your breath away. I have derived more pleasure from the companionship of chamber music and musicians than anything else, and value and revere their efforts as peripatetic providers of comfort and solace to publics across this nation and around the world. They are very special people and I have never lost the thrill of listening to live performances by domestic and international quartets and other chamber configurations.

From working professionally in music in the 1970s to running the Australian Film Commission from the mid-1980s, I have moved on to a commercial business career in the film and television production and broadcast industries. The nature of my commercial work has always been demanding. I believe many of the leadership, management and persuasive skills I have are directly attributable to the discipline and experience of my musical life.

It was in the arts that I learnt to never, ever give up. I learnt to keep on trying and to come at a problem from a variety of angles until a solution was found. The arts in this country – in most countries – have a tough time of it. There is not enough money, the market is hard and the activity expensive – problems which are all compounded by the nature of Australia's demography and geography. However, we have seen our creative community achieve a huge amount both nationally and internationally, and as an Australian I take real pride in the breadth and quality of that achievement. None of it could have happened without support and education.

It is fashionable today to defend music education by saying that it assists students in other areas such as language or mathematics. That is undoubtedly true. Nicole Kidman said of her research for the Sydney Pollack film The Interpreter that she was enormously surprised that most of the extraordinary linguists who work as interpreters in the United Nations played a musical instrument.

We should use each and every available argument to defend and promote the fundamental need for formal and comprehensive music education from the commencement of school onwards. We need to boost the creative confidence and literacy of the community with a comprehensive national curriculum which includes compulsory music, writing, visual arts, performance and digital media, and a physical, social and digital infrastructure that nurtures, nourishes and secures intellectual and creative endeavour and provides certainty of support for the talented.

It saddens me to think that we are increasingly compelled to defend music by reference to other impacts rather than in reference to music itself. Music is good for one. Period. It is good for the soul. It is good for human tolerance. It opens one's perception. It frees one's mind. It reinforces our capacity to feel and understand.

These are things I know to be true. I have been lucky – so many have not.


From Griffith Review Edition 23: Essentially Creative © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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