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INSIDE THE MUSICIAN. Anna Reid: The Best Job in the World

The role of higher music education in shaping the way pre-professionals come to think about music and the importance of their art for their future careers.

As Dean of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music (SCM), I am happy to say that I have the most exciting musical job in the world – working with pre-professional musicians who are keen to develop their exceptional skills to ensure their musical future. I’ve been a music educator in higher education all my life, since I was 24, just a few years after I graduated from the SCM myself. I am constantly astounded at the range of different experiences that people have with music, both as players and listeners, and this has become one of my keen areas of exploration for the last several decades. My start in music was similar to that of many musicians, a love affair with a specific instrument that I simply could not get away from. The moment I unpacked my first three-quarter cello from its canvas bag I was entranced. The splendour of the instrument was a siren call; the smell of the rosined bag was an aphrodisiac; the beauty of the sound was an addiction. But the best bit was when I discovered that I could play with other people and together we could do amazing things!

This ensemble dimension of music is possibly the most critical area of musicianship. Being able to interpret the musical scores of composers, being able to play empathetically with fellow musicians, listening to and following the ideas of musical leaders, and communicating with an audience are completely seductive. When I started, I only heard the music itself and loved that. But as I progressed, I discovered that the music was deeply bound to the social, historical and cultural world that it inhabited. I recall, for instance, finding out that my beloved cello had metal wound strings simply because of advances in metallurgy due to the industrial revolution. Suddenly I was curious about what happened before metal strings were available. I discovered the completely different sound world of gut strings, not only on the cello, but also on related instruments such as the viola da gamba. Musically, this meant that my instrument could be a conduit to the lives of people through the forms and sounds of music played in ‘historical’ contexts, and could provide a contrast with the same music interpreted on ‘modern’ instruments. Unsurprisingly, this technical innovation was part of societal changes in the places where music was played. Small rooms for gut strings in the historical era, larger spaces for the metal strings in more modern times; historical patronage of professional musicians by the aristocracy, as opposed to remuneration through ticket sales from a general public in more contemporary times. We can find many similar examples as we consider the place of music in our modern society.

Today the majority of people in the world are able to easily listen to a wide variety of music – classical art music, traditional folk music, various genres of jazz, or contemporary popular music, for instance. Each of these forms has its own links to the social and cultural history of groups of people. Here we come to the intersection between musical study at a conservatoire and the world in which we live. My view is that professional musicians (including student pre-professional musicians) have an important role to play in reflecting on and being critical of society, raising awareness of social issues, and suggesting solutions to societal problems. Our musicians begin with an emphasis on the creation of beautiful sound, the initial focus of a conservatoire education, and move towards the creation of meaning for listeners – meaning of the social, political and cultural space in which the music exists. Musicians (and artists in general) become the commentators and critics of the society in which they live.

One particular social issue that concerns me, as Dean of Australia’s largest conservatorium, is the problem of engaging musically with the widest cross section of society. Historically, conservatoires have tended to focus on Western classical ‘art’ music, training expert players and singers of Western classical orchestral instruments and voice types, usually selected from young people who have had an upbringing that included enough resources for instruments and lessons. At the SCM we have worked hard to broaden this focus to include other areas of music such as jazz and early music, music from other cultures such as Chinese traditional music, contemporary aspects such as popular music and digital composition, and – most recently – combined artistic explorations in music theatre. This has enabled us to broaden the groups from which we take our students; we have established programs of musical outreach to rural and remote communities, and heightened appreciation of our Australian Indigenous musical heritage and its contemporary expressions.

Another social issue that concerns me is the problem of sustainability, interpreted in the broadest sense; cultural, social and economic, as well as environmental. Some people (including musicians) may not see any immediate links between music and sustainability; a couple of examples can serve to illustrate the commentary that musicians can make on aspects of their society.

Looking at the environmental aspects of sustainability, we can consider the role played by touring. For musicians, touring can be a major activity, contributing to both fame and fortune; but since so many resources are expended on a tour, it is worth considering the real point of touring to provide an informed justification for the activity. In any conservatoire, touring plays an essential part in the curriculum, first of all for the experience of presenting concerts to different audiences in different places. Touring is also important for professional networking with peers and future employers. Maybe most importantly, touring is about seeing more of the world, and the social and cultural environments in which music is played. It is about understanding how music works in different places, and absorbing the sounds, sights and feelings of those places. Such experiences help students to situate their music making and broaden their musical ambitions. These educational benefits can be used to justify the environmental costs associated with travelling on tours.

Looking at the cultural aspects of sustainability, we can talk about the ways that a conservatorium education can introduce students to the music of other cultures, such as the Chinese traditional music that I mentioned earlier. At the Sydney Conservatorium we have a Chinese Music Ensemble. Many of its participants are not ‘majors’ in Chinese instruments, but rather musicians – singers, composers, pianists, violinists – from across our student cohort. Each begins with a crash course on an instrument new to them that is a core part of a traditional Chinese ensemble. These students now have access to a sound world, performance practices, instrumental techniques, musical history and traditions from China, different tuning systems, and a different understanding of the role of music. Their performances allow them to communicate with members of Sydney’s large Chinese population, and refresh the cultural heritage of a country, China, that has been part of Australian society for more than two centuries. Bridging cultural heritage through ‘Songs of Home’ my colleagues Myf Turpin and Catherine Ingram joined Anmatyerr custodians and the Chinese Kam community together in a joint sharing of music and culture at the Conservatorium in 2016. This activity enabled students and staff to gain an appreciation of deep cultural knowledge embedded in women’s ways of knowing from these ancient communities.

From the ‘Songs of Home: Anmatyerr and Kam Singing Traditions.’ A conference held at the Music Workshop, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, The University of Sydney, Australia

These different examples of sustainability, environmental and cultural, provide a focus for many of our programs at the SCM. One of the joys of working in this environment is the crafting of curriculum that will enable the widest possible experience for the broadest group of students. Most of these students enter the SCM – as I did in my youth – with highly developed musical skills and particular ambitions for their future. Through their musical experiences with us, we aim to expand their skills in their core craft of music, to extend their experience of playing music in multiple different settings, and also to develop their thinking about the role of music in society and their roles as critical artists. I hope that when our students graduate, they have had experience of playing or composing for a wide variety of different genres. I hope that our equity programs will bring students to the Con who have a wide range of different cultural backgrounds. I hope that we can use these experiences to influence their peers’ awareness of the role of music. I hope that our graduates will be able to reflect seriously on the different situations in which they play, and to create music that relates to those situations with empathy. And I hope that our graduates will make a real difference to the lives of their listeners and the society in which they live.


Professor Anna Reid is an alumna of the Sydney Conservatorium, The University of Sydney, becoming Dean in 2016. Her practical and research interests in social equity and professional preparation have led to the creation of internship programs, ‘buddy’ relationships with regional conservatoria, freeing up the music curriculum to deliver greater student choice, enhancing student engagement with musical studies, and fostering equity programs for students and faculty. She enjoys working with music research students in the areas of Conducting, Composition, Performance Studies, Jazz, Education, and Non-Western Music (to name a few!). Recent research work includes the co-edited ‘Creative Research in Music: Informed Practice, Innovation, and Transcendence’ (Routledge) and ‘Educating Musicians for Sustainability’ (Routledge). Anna is also a cellist.

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