When I arrived in Townsville in 1990 I found a performing arts scene far stronger than I expected in a city of its size, around 120,000 at that time: two light opera companies, three theatre groups, an astonishingly good youth dance group and a small professional dance company, a youth orchestra, two brass bands and more.

Townsville is further from its state capital than is any provincial city in Tasmania, Victoria, New South Wales (yes, even Broken Hill) or South Australia. Furthermore, its nearest comparable city, Cairns, is four and a half hours’ drive away, distant enough to be irrelevant in daily life. I soon came to believe that its isolation was, on the whole, good for the arts in the community. It encouraged people to do things themselves and, while there were enough fully professional events to keep expectations high, local performers’ support was not constantly drained by competition from touring artists.

A little later I realised also that what was happening in school music was quite different from, and far better than, what I was used to in Melbourne and was crucial to what I saw in the wider community. This article surveys both classroom music and instrumental music programmes in schools and their outcomes in community music-making.

Keeping myself out of this overview would, to my mind, be slightly misleading in that I have participated in many of the organisations I will describe, so this will be a somewhat personal account but it is nevertheless as objective as possible. I will deal with vocal and instrumental activity separately since individuals and organisations tend to focus on one or the other.

Instrumental Music in Schools …

Education Queensland’s instrumental music programme seems to be poorly known outside the state so I will describe its operation as I have seen it (from both the inside and the outside) in Townsville.

In the 1990s, a dozen instrumental teachers were employed under salaries and conditions matching those of their classroom-teaching counterparts. Teachers were semi-specialist, in that woodwind teachers taught flute, clarinet and sax in primary school and added double reeds in larger secondary programmes, while strings, brass and percussion teachers usually taught all members of the family; some teachers were appointed as ‘multis’ responsible for all woodwind, brass and percussion, mainly in smaller schools.

Each of them (us, actually) taught in a circuit of schools, spending one third of a day to three days per week in each according to programme size, giving small groups (3 – 6) of students half-hour lessons in school time and bringing them together in string orchestras, concert bands and/or other large ensembles rehearsing before or after school. The typical teacher’s student load was 150, so the total number of students approached 2000. (Staffing was essentially capped by the department, presumably for budgetary reasons, and demand exceeded availability.)

The programme was offered in all schools which were considered big enough to sustain them, i.e. school enrolments above (from memory) 250 children. The smallest saw one ‘multi’ teacher visiting for a half-day per week and teaching perhaps fifteen students. At the other end of the scale the largest secondary school programme, at Pimlico State High School, had some 300 students, more than 25% of the student body, playing in three concert bands (junior, intermediate and senior), two string orchestras and a full orchestra, a stage band, a percussion ensemble and a brass band; fitted around these, in lesson time or the students’ own time, were string trios and quartets, rock bands, etc.

Lessons were free to the children and some instruments were available for loan to them, so costs to the parents were very low. Some children, obviously, only participate for a year or two but others continue to the end of their school years.

My son’s career in the programme was fairly typical. He began learning cello at Mundingburra State School in Year 3, on a school-owned quarter-size instrument, which was traded up to larger sizes over the next few years until we bought him a full-size cello. He joined the junior string orchestra in Year 4 and moved up to the senior orchestra a year or so later, at about the time he started supplementing group tuition with individual lessons outside the school (something many of the keener students do) and taking AMEB 1 exams. He continued to Pimlico State High where he played in the full orchestra (60-plus members; New World Symphony and L’Arlesienne) and (successively) the String Orchestra and Chamber Strings (Four Seasons with orchestra members as soloists).

One highlight of his school years was the orchestra’s tour to Hobart; another was Chamber Strings’ trip to Brisbane to compete in the finals of Fanfare, EQ’s biennial gala competition. It was wonderful for him musically but also socially, because it gave him a large cross-age peer group of cheerfully confident self-motivated high achievers.

EQ’s programme in Townsville had begun much smaller, in the mid 1970’s, and took a dozen years to build to the level I have described. It is now still operating in very much the same form. I must emphasise that it is not at all special to Townsville: Education Queensland’s programme is state-wide and reaches all but the smallest, most isolated towns.

While EQ’s programme was growing, non-government schools began to see the best and brightest students drift to the state sector for the music and lifted their own musical efforts in response. Existing programmes in independent schools were provided with more resources and the Catholic diocesan schools under the leadership of their energetic music co-ordinator, Sr Valerie Huston, expanded existing offerings and introduced new programmes. None of the non-government schools could offer free tuition, of course, but they could and did offer a wider range of instruments and a choice of individual or group lessons, and in the end participation rates were, and are, broadly comparable.

…and What Comes After

By 1990 the instrumental music programme in state schools had matured to the point that there was a strong cohort of musicians in their mid-teens and above. In retrospect it seems likely that their existence drove a series of important innovations in the next few years: where were they to go, and what were they to do?

James Cook University had for many years offered music only within the Education faculty but years of lobbying bore fruit when the university began offering full-fledged music degrees in the early 1990s. The department started promisingly but, sadly, the depredations of three successive razor gangs (one local, two federal) reduced it to a size which prohibits the traditional instrumental/orchestral courses we wanted and forces our young instrumentalists once again to go south, mostly to Brisbane, for tertiary study.

Theodore Kuchar came to Townsville to join the new JCU music department and proposed an annual chamber music festival. Vice-chancellor Ray Golding supported the idea and the Australian Festival of Chamber Music was launched in 1991. Held annually over nine days in August, the festival presents internationally acclaimed classical musicians to audiences from Townsville and southern Australia.

Concurrently, the sporadic moves to establish a Townsville orchestra gained strength under the leadership of a new body called NQ Ensembles, Inc.. In 2000, musicians were invited to participate in a weekend workshop under the baton of Richard McIntyre, of the Canberra School of Music, to test the viability of an Orchestra; it was successful and our Barrier Reef Orchestra was born.

Its membership ranges from teenagers upwards: the best of the high school students supported by adults from the general community (most of whom, by now, learned in the school programmes), aided by imports when required and led (mainly) by local music teachers. Its high standard is a tribute to the guidance and inspiration of its founding Patron, Professor John Hopkins OBE, and conductor Richard McIntyre OAM, and to the vision and persistence of local teachers Donna McMahon (EQ’s first string teacher here), Jenny Carr, Carol Dall’Osto, Suzanne Darrigan and Stephen Frewen-Lord.

BRO celebrated its tenth anniversary in July 2010. It typically performs three times per year, generally with a guest conductor and sometimes with other performing groups. In 2007 a string ensemble drawn from the orchestra was invited by Piers Lane, the new Director of the AFCM, to perform in the festival for the first time; and that year culminated in a sell-out concert featuring jazz trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist James Morrison, conductor Sean O’Boyle, jazz vocalist Emma Pask, Townsville Brass, and the rhythm section from the Townsville-based 1 RAR Band.

We also have, as I mentioned in my introduction and describe more fully below, two light opera companies — Townsville Choral and Orchestral Society and North Queensland Opera and Music Theatre. Each presents two or three shows per year and the pit orchestras comprise much the same mix of players as BRO. We have had an Oratorio Choir doing one major concert per year since 1988, with a similarly composed orchestra, and we see the same mix, too, in Townsville Community Band, the two brass bands (Townsville Brass and Thuringowa Brass Band), Townsville Guitar Orchestra and the Stokes-Nicholson Big Band.

All of this is utterly dependent upon what happens in the schools. Without the instrumental students and ex-students we wouldn’t have the rank and file players; and without the teachers brought here to teach them, we wouldn’t have the conductors and section leaders.

Vocal Music in the Community and its Foundations in Schools

North Queensland Opera and Music Theatre was formed in 1980, incorporated in 1994 and purchased their own home in 1996 with assistance from the Queensland government and the Townsville City Council. Their first musical, Man of La Mancha (1981) and the majority of their productions ever since have been directed by Bill Munro. Chicago (2002) was brilliant; when I saw the movie a while later, I found it flat by comparison — our Martin Allan made Richard Gere look comatose, our Terri Brabon made what’s-her-name (you know, the female lead) totally forgettable, and we had a pretty good band on stage, too. ”Cabaret ” 2004) was memorably visceral; other shows have included Evita, Cats, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and The Boy from Oz.

Townsville Choral and Orchestral Society started in 1906 and since then has produced eighty musicals and thousands of choral items to entertain the public. Until the 1980s its programming was quite conservative (lots of G&S and R&H) which probably explains NQOMT’s statement that its founders “wanted to present contemporary theatre to the people of Townsville.” Standout productions include Les Miserables (first Australian amateur production, if I remember correctly) in 1994. It was so well received that they took the extraordinary step of staging a second season almost immediately and yet another the following year. TCOS has gradually become more adventurous, with recent productions including Chess and West Side Story, but NQOMT is still more likely to challenge its performers and audience.

The venue for nearly all our musicals has been Townsville Civic Theatre. Owned and managed by Townsville City Council, it is used for a broad range of entertainment both local and touring: drama, dance (Bangarra was there recently with Mathinna), musicals, orchestral and chamber music performances including AFCM’s 2 major concerts, the Eisteddfod, school speech nights, and more. Seating about 1000, it opened in 1978 and received significant extensions to the foyer/bar area, which had always been rather cramped, a couple of years ago. We also have a larger space, the Entertainment Centre, which is used by the biggest touring pop groups, and a newer, smaller theatre in the Riverway Arts Centre, a ‘black box’ space which can comfortably seat about 300.

With each company doing two or three shows per year, emerging performers have plenty of opportunities (and, by the way, no binding loyalties — everyone works where and when they want to). Some leave us for bigger stages and brighter lights but others stay with their day jobs (our first Jean Valjean, for instance, was local optometrist Bernie Lanigan) and their home town.

Each company has a continuing choral group which performs at community events and the NQ (adult) Eisteddfod, but in 1988 conductor Neil Smith invited more singers to join an Oratorio Choir which would rehearse and present one larger concert each year. They did The Messiah, of course; Faure’s Requiem, which was my favourite from university choir days and got me singing again; the Mozart Requiem; Adams’ Mass for Peace; and many others, usually with a scratch orchestra but once, memorably, with the visiting Queensland Orchestra. Smith has recently stepped down from his conducting role and the further existence of the choir is in doubt, partly because of the emergence of new choirs attracting most of the younger singers and some of the older ones, leaving the more traditional choirs under-strength.

The most outstanding of the new choral groups is undoubtedly Aquapella, a world music choir formed by Beat Lehmann. Beat is an inspirational leader — always positive, supportive and boundlessly energetic — and lifted Aquapella to the top of the ABC’s Choir of the Year competition in 2006 and the main stage of the Woodford Folk Festival.

Beat chooses to work entirely by ear, and some singers who prefer to see what they are singing go to Kerry Rehn and her string of choirs – children’s to adults’, beginners’ to advanced. I heard Contempo (her top young-adult group, a dozen singers in their twenties and early thirties) at the recent twentieth anniversary celebration of Kodaly Music Education Institute of Australia’s Townsville branch and was enormously impressed. These are singers who have grown up with Kodaly classroom music, and in some cases gone on to teach it, and their musicianship is wonderful. The guest of honour that evening, Deanna Hoermann, spoke about the genesis of Kodaly music education in Australia and presented Sr Valerie Huston with a Life Membership for her pivotal role in music education here.

Valerie was in charge of music at the Marian School when I began teaching in Townsville and was therefore responsible for my (musical) conversion experience. I had taught woodwinds for fifteen years in a dozen Melbourne schools without ever meeting children who had musical skills or knowledge from the classroom which I could build on. Here, suddenly, my Year 4 beginners all knew beat and rhythm, the basics of notation and scale structures, and a repertoire of songs they could sing accurately, while the best of the Year 7 children (the top of primary school here, not the bottom of secondary) could sight-sing in three parts.

Many of those children went on to a nearby Catholic girls secondary school whose choir toured once to Hungary and, incidentally, dominated the Eisteddfod for years.

With young adults like that emerging from schools every year, the Choral Society and NQOMT are assured of a good chorus; but some go on to further study and, if we are lucky, return as soloists. Rebecca Cassidy is one who did. She came back from Brisbane recently as the soprano soloist in the BRO/Spirit of the Voice Beethoven Choral Symphony under UK conductor David Lawrence, undoubtedly the biggest single concert of the year.

That brings me full circle, uniting as it does the instrumental and vocal elements of music in the community with the educational inputs and their outcomes.


Not long after I arrived here, I realised that the city was an excellent ant-colony for sociomusicological study, being small and well-connected enough that one person could know most of what was happening but large enough to be reasonably representative and isolated enough that outside influences could be ignored.

I have enjoyed tracing connections here and hope that my observations prompt reflections on the status of community music elsewhere — in particular, in Melbourne and Sydney.

Members of the arts community outside those two centres are as disparate as their counterparts within them but are — overwhelmingly — united in one belief: that the decision makers in arts and education, who devise policies for the whole state and nation, have not the faintest idea about what goes on more than ten kilometres from their respective GPOs and (even worse) don’t care because they assume it can’t possibly be of any value in itself or to them as arts administrators. 3They are wrong. If they would only look, they would find much to learn from smaller centres and smaller states.

Cultural Desert? Where?

Townsville’s population is 170,000 while Sydney’s is 4,500,000 and Melbourne’s is 4,000,000 so for a rough per capita comparison between the one and the other two, we can say either of them is 25 times the size of Townsville.

So each of them should have 50 suburban light opera companies producing 150 shows per year, each running for half a dozen performances; it should have 50 suburban brass bands; more than twenty community orchestras, and a similar number of community concert bands. Its jazz club/s should host over 600 events per year, and a festival every week; its folk club/s should do the same; its recorder or early music society, one I know about but you may not, should have 500 members rather than the 50 – 100 it actually has; and there should be a rich scattering of other community musical groups — perhaps not a guitar orchestra in every second suburb, but a mix of pipe bands, bell-ringing groups, gypsy bands and so on.

All of this should be pro-am activity: resident amateurs from age 15 up, led and coached by semi-professional players and conductors and only occasionally employing fully professional musicians for special projects. Townsville has virtually no professional performers per se apart from the Army band, because we don’t have the audience base to support them; we have a number who derive a useful supplementary income from playing (up to perhaps $10,000 p.a.) but nearly all our leading players are teachers, accountants, etc. We don’t even have any of the very best recently-ex high school students, i.e. the conservatorium students who make such a difference in Sydney and Melbourne, because they have all gone south for their professional training.

If we want to throw professional performance into the comparison, then, we must compare visiting groups here with resident and visiting groups in Melbourne or Sydney. The Queensland Orchestra comes up from Brisbane once a year, as do the Opera and the Ballet; the AFCM gives us 30 world-class concerts (admittedly all in one week); exotics like Bangarra come through from time to time; and there is a steady parade of other and often (dare I say) lesser groups and soloists passing through Civic Theatre and Riverway. Multiply it by 25 and I doubt we are much worse served, per capita, than the mega-cities.

So where is the cultural desert? Clearly, community music in Melbourne and Sydney.

Why? Music in schools. I can look at any of our groups and tell you where nearly everyone comes from, and I know that if you took out the high-school students, the recently-ex high school students who haven’t left town, and (just as crucially) the people who live here because they are employed teaching the young ones, you wouldn’t have functioning ensembles. Here, on display every week in every town and city in Queensland, is ample evidence of the value to the community of properly funded school music programmes.


Malcolm Tattersall. Expanded from his article “The Ant Colony” in Music Forum, Vol. 18, No. 2, February 2012. Article submitted 19 January 2013 and entered into Knowledge Base 1 March 2013, with website references added.


  1. Australian Music Examination Board. See Music Examination Boards in Australia.↩︎
  2. The [ Australian Festival of Chamber Music.↩︎
  3. One veteran administrator even said to me, genuinely puzzled by my suggestion that the exercise might be valuable, “I don’t think there is any point in comparing Townsville with cities with 6 or 25 times the population.”↩︎

A Townsville, Queensland, based musician, teacher and composer whose musical interests centre on the recorder. He regularly contributes record reviews for Music Forum but his primary occupation since 1980 has been teaching woodwinds in schools, both primary and secondary. He taught in state and independent schools in Melbourne for ten years before moving to Townsville where he has taught in state, Catholic and independent schools for twenty years.

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