I moved from Sydney to the central western region of New South Wales in 2001. At the time, 20 years into my career as a portfolio professional musician and educator, I was teaching, performing freelance as a singer and trombonist, and conducting largely amateur and school-based ensembles; leading a not-atypical freelance musician’s existence. Having recently completed my Masters in Conducting from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, I accepted the position of Music Director at the principal community music education organisation in Orange (256 kilometres inland from Sydney), the Orange Regional Conservatorium (ORC). My role as the organisation’s first full-time Music Director comprised responsibilities of music leader, artistic programs manager, educator, performer, and regional music advocate. My family and I moved to Orange for a three-year stay.
Now, two decades on from that relocation, eight years into my second Regional Conservatorium CEO position, and with 13 years of leadership experience at the peak body level (the Association of NSW Regional Conservatoriums, 2003-2016), I have a fairly unique perspective on organisations and settings similar to my own, and a practical familiarity with variations across and between regional communities. This perspective also brings into relief points of comparison with the urban environment in which I grew up and spent half of my career, and with which I still engage on a regular basis from my home in country NSW.
This article reflects on the strengthening and increasing viability of non-metropolitan music education organisations in NSW as educators, substantial employers and social and cultural assets that are poised to enrich, enliven and respond to community needs and expectations via multiple delivery and engagement platforms. Touching on just a couple of the elements of the course regional Cons have set for themselves over 40+ years, the article suggests that a networked model of Regional Conservatoriums as subsidised, community-owned and operated facilities is one that could be replicated successfully, to communities’ benefit, across the country.
Being offered one of the first full-time Director positions in a Regional Conservatorium, it was possible for me to make the ‘tree-change’ from Sydney, a move that I welcomed and was fortunate to secure. 20 years on, the majority of the (now 17) CEO positions in Regional Cons are full-time and highly professionalised. Those 17 senior music education management positions represent, in themselves, a development in employment and professional experience opportunity that simply did not exist at the beginning of the 21st century, let alone 23 years prior to that when the regional Cons emerged on the non-metropolitan scene.
Regional Conservatoriums were introduced to the music education landscape in NSW in the late 1970s, with what is now the Mitchell Conservatorium (then the Central Western Music Centre) opening its doors in Bathurst and Orange in May 1978. The network of independent Conservatoriums, 14 when I joined in 2001, provides extensive music education services including individual and group instrumental and vocal training; in-school classroom support; early childhood music, special needs and seniors’ programs; professional learning for schoolteachers; and partnered delivery of tertiary music course units. As community-owned, community-operated and community-focused not-for-profit organisations, the list of services is ever growing and ever diversifying to meet existing and prospective local needs and requirements. Being independent means the ability to be flexible, active, responsive to the local community and poised to initiate and respond to cross-community collaborations and partnerships.
Significant employers and contributors to local economies
Regional Conservatoriums are partially funded by the NSW state government, and as part of the funding premise, direct support of local schools and their music education programs is core business. One of the great benefits of the increased partnering with school communities over the 20 years I have been involved with RC leadership is the increased requirement, and, capacity, of the organisations to employ classroom-qualified teachers, in addition to the already substantial workforce (540+ across the state) of performance-qualified and experienced teachers. This significant consideration, that of the ability to employ music teachers outside of major city and urban environments, broadens my earlier point about the opportunity RCs gave me to relocate for the long-term, to enjoy and develop a career where there would otherwise be none. The employment of many hundreds of specialist music educators, administrators and support staff across regional NSW provides an enormous boost to local economies as well as non-metropolitan cultural capital.
Regional players in the virtual environment
In 2003, which indeed seems like an age ago, I was fortunate enough to enter into a partnership with the principal telco of the time, through their regional NSW-specific exploration of videoconferencing (VC) capacity and potential. The ORC was therefore fortunate to be involved in the early days of VC delivery, with trials in Broken Hill, West Wyalong and a few other remote sites. This was a fascinating and valuable exploration of pedagogical challenges, and to varying degrees, triumphs. We also benefited in this venture by the developing skills and knowledge of trailblazers in the distance music education scene like Mark Walton, who at the time was working with Sydney Conservatorium.
The communication platform in those early days of VC was essentially very fast phone lines (ISDN), and for the next few years the ORC, Riverina Conservatorium and other early adopters relied on that technology until Internet Protocol videoconferencing technology made the connections, the delay in two-way audio and video traffic, and the user cost significantly more palatable. In 2005 a working party was established to assess the viability and value of VC delivery for Cons, in 2007 a pilot program involving Orange, Riverina and Macquarie Cons was carried out, then in 2011 all Regional Cons received state-of-the-art IP VC equipment through the NSW Department of Education. With this development, the capability for travel-free distance delivery, given satisfactory broadband and the availability of compatible equipment at the remote end, was somewhat revolutionised.
Over the 18 years since those early ventures into distance delivery, and indeed since the broad access to and use of Internet Protocol VC by Regional Cons a decade ago, definite benefit has been gained. The relevance of Regional Conservatoriums has been reinforced by their capability to deliver utilising the technology, with experience showing that in many cases remote learners relate more comfortably and more willingly to other regional/non-metropolitan educators and institutions, notwithstanding the obvious fact that access to specialists utilising VC technology is not restricted to geographic vicinity.
One other particularly powerful and consolidating benefit for RCs in having access to the high-quality proprietary platform (with specific music-mode software that allows for clear, dynamic, two-way audio) is in sharing teachers or engaging locums from within the RC network – availing students of continuing, quality tuition when a staff member leaves or is indisposed for an extended period.
It must be noted, however, that there are still impediments in the adoption of this type of delivery; the main ones being the varying levels of confidence in the process and procedure, access to the compatible hardware at the remote end, and the quality of broadband internet service at both ends.
Fast forwarding to the current period, it would be ridiculous of me not to acknowledge the caveat that, as I write, the 15-month forced experiment with ZOOM and other open access platforms has profoundly changed the distance delivery landscape, with much of the proprietary VC equipment sitting aside in favour of universally accessible PC, Lap-top and portable device platforms throughout COVID-19 social distancing restrictions. Music educators across the globe have had to learn about the pedagogical and technical challenges of distance delivery, and yet I wonder if we have really overcome the impediments that I believe disrupt the teaching and learning process and stand in the way of what could otherwise be a genuine acceptance and embrace of virtual delivery: reliable bandwidth, speed limitations and asynchronous internet – frustrations for both teachers and students in achieving easy and effective communication. Music as a group activity is also rarely effective utilising video-link platforms, again due to the upload/download delay in the majority of virtual environments.
So, is there an upside to the developing virtual environment for Regional Cons and their communities? I believe there is. A more equal playing field. We’re all in it together.
Sure, we don’t necessarily have access to the highest quality or fastest internet services, but having now been engaged in internet platform calls, symposia, conferences etc. for well over a year, what we have seen is the same issues and challenges experienced, to different degrees, the world over.
The view from here…
Geographically remote no longer means truly remote. The challenge is for us to capitalise on the increasingly even playing field and increase our engagement with educators, artists, academics and supporters in larger, more diverse and progressive centres of activity. Since March 2020, I have been involved as a presenter at multiple sessions of half a dozen international conferences and symposia. Quite apart from being pleased by just how viable and comparatively user-friendly platforms like ZOOM are for such multiple-party participation, I have been struck by how democratic the platforms can be, coming together in virtual gatherings. There is no ‘back of the room’, no more or less prominent position in the space, presenting opportunity for engagement by all participants regardless of their (real or perceived) status.
Regional Conservatoriums are valuable community assets. Their continued development and professionalisation over the past couple of decades has resulted in enriched communities, lifelong learning and career pathways. When I started my Regional Conservatorium journey, careers in ‘the bush’ were not commonly considered to be professional practice options by developing or established specialist music education professionals. In 2021, from where I sit, the odds are changing. Slowly, but surely, as Regional Cons have transitioned from the status of de-facto, supportive yet peripheral components of the music education framework to formal structural players. We are more connected – and certainly more contacted when it comes to recruitment – and we have both the opportunity and responsibility, particularly given our autonomy and direct-community orientation, to stay accessible, stay relevant, and indeed, to stay the course.
Dr Graham Sattler is a community music researcher/educator and practising musician who relocated to regional NSW from Sydney approximately 20 years ago. Graham holds a PhD, Master of Performance (Conducting) and Diploma of Operatic Art and Music Theatre. He is a 2019 Churchill fellow, Executive Director of Mitchell Conservatorium and a member of the Regional Music Research Group