The survey was conducted with the kind collaboration of Rory Jeffes, CEO of the SSO, and orchestral members.

The Purpose of the Survey

The survey seeks to identify important aspects of the contribution of music education to the achievement of career success in orchestral music performance. The success here is attested by the membership of all respondents in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

In particular, it seeks to discover the contribution of school music education, at this time when the introduction of a national curriculum in music will throw a spotlight on the rationale supporting universal opportunity for a school music education, and the ability to school systems to deliver it.

The Music Council supports the provision of universal opportunity for a quality music education throughout the school years. Most children benefiting from such opportunity will not seek professional careers in music, but their lives and abilities will be enriched nevertheless. However, the education should also be capable of supporting progress towards a musical career of high achievement. We can look to Sweden, where very broad opportunity results in a musically discerning population that makes musical demands on its musicians, and provides also the basis for the rise of professional musicians who can compete internationally. Sweden’s is a musically successful population and its music economy is one of the few most successful internationally.

There is a purpose in selecting the members of this highly admired orchestra as the subjects of the study. The intention is not simply to paint a profile of music education in Australia but rather, of the education that is capable of leading to career success. If the measure of success is not fairly clear-cut, cause and effect, already apparent largely by implication, becomes even more difficult to establish.

The members of a fine orchestra are successful in a particular way. Entrepreneurial skills or stagecraft are largely irrelevant whereas they could be quite important for a musician performing with small ensembles.

Some Key Outcomes

  1. 33 of the 93 orchestral members responded (35%).
  2. There was low representation of the woodwinds, no French horn players or tympani. The lower strings were well represented.
  3. 41% were taking instrumental lessons by the age of 6, and 86% by the age of 8. It is mainly the string players that began very early.
  4. 61% attended a government secondary school, 30% an independent school and 9% a Catholic school. The overall percentages of these schools in Australia: 71%, 11% and 18%.
  5. Half said that their primary school had a good music program. 78% of those attending independent schools and 67% of those attending Catholic schools said their primary schools had good music programs, but only 37% of those attending government schools.
  6. There was more enthusiasm for the secondary school music programs. 76% found them good, 12% fair, 9% poor and 3% non-existent. Clearly, for many, their secondary school music programs were important to career development. 80% of attendees at both government and independent schools found them good, but only one in three of the Catholic school respondents.
  7. All respondents took individual instrumental lessons. 30% took lessons in regular school: 38% of students at independent schools, 19% at government schools, and none at Catholic schools.
  8. Only one respondent has no tertiary qualification. (This is in strong contrast to the successful contemporary musicians in a parallel MCA survey: 38% held tertiary qualifications.)
  9. Those who attended independent schools were much more likely to hold postgraduate qualifications. The majority of postgraduate study took place overseas (USA, UK, Germany, 3 others.)
  10. Students from an independent school background did the least practice at conservatorium.
  11. 33% held their first regular orchestral position by the age of 20 (40% of those from government schools, 10% of those from independent schools) and another 24% by the age of 22 (an additional 25% from government schools, 20% from independent schools). All 33 respondents held positions by the age of 30.
  12. The most significant factors in their music education? Top of the list: inspiring teachers; high school music programs, youth orchestras, musical households/family. See the report for others.
  13. 54% expressed an interest in performing in non-classical genres (jazz was the most popular).
  14. Future career directions? 25 responded. 10 were focused on their orchestral careers. 10 want to be involved in chamber music performance and 10 in teaching. These groups overlap.

Some Issues of Significance

These artists began music lessons very early in life. 86% were taking music lessons by age 8, 41% by age 6. There is a sequence of physiological and neurological developments in the early years which cannot be achieved later, some of them depending upon, for instance, musical instruction. Early music lessons set these children up for later career success as orchestral musicians. However, in a broader context, that only serves as supporting evidence for their importance. There is no reason to offer these opportunities only to the musically precocious or the children of musically committed families. The developments are potentially valuable to everyone, the more so because of the evidence from research that the development of musical skills results in increased achievement in non-music areas.

It can be implied from the survey that these musicians, or their parents, sought out schools that offer high quality music education. Only half said that their primary schools had good music programs and indeed, good primary school music programs are pretty rare in the public sector. Presumably, by one means or another, their talent was spotted in the primary school years, presumably by their parents or their private teachers, and someone realised that they needed the best possible musical opportunities in their teen years. 80% of government and independent secondary school attendees said their programs were good. This must mean that the selected government schools were specialist music schools. And independent schools, which in many cases have elaborate music programs and facilities, are greatly over-represented among schools attended by our respondents.

It should be noted that the early start on instrumental lessons would have been available mostly to children of affluent families. A career as an orchestral musician is not a possibility for most economically disadvantaged children because the opportunity for music education does not come until secondary school — too late — and probably the local high school has little relevant music instruction.

Only 9% of our respondents attended a Catholic school. 18% of schools nationally are Catholic. In a parallel survey of the Tasmanian Symphony, no players had attended a Catholic school. On the face of it, there is reason for the Catholic system to review its music programs.

Judging from this sample, a tertiary qualification in music is a prerequisite to an orchestral career.

When asked to name the most significant factors in their music education, over 80% cited their teachers. Most would have been their individual instrumental teachers or in some cases, teacher of other aspects of performance. The education systems and the school music education profession generally see the classroom music teacher (not responsible for instrumental instruction or music performance) as the core of the music programs. Most government systems have instrumental instruction programs (excepting the largest state, NSW), but they reach only a small percentage of students. (Queensland, probably the strongest, reaches only 11%.) So the systemic emphasis may be misplaced — but that could be rectified only with much expanded expenditure.

The Survey

The invitation was issued by the SSO CEO, stating that it is a collaboration between SSO and the MCA.

33 responded out of a total of 93 musicians. The sample size is satisfactory but the statistics become less reliable when dependent on a subgroup with a small number of members. For instance, only 3 respondents were educated in Catholic schools so it is not very appropriate to generalise to the Catholic school system from their responses.

The survey report includes the factual data and some additional commentary.

What instrument do you play in the SSO?
No responses were received from players of oboe, clarinet, cor Anglais, French horn, tuba, tympani, harp and piano. (We could speculate that this result depended upon communication between players of each instrument.)

1. How old were you when you began to play an instrument?

33 responded

It seems that it helps to get an early start.

2. How old were you when your first took music lessons on an instrument?

33 responded.


Age / How old were you when your first took music lessons on an instrument

It is mainly the string players who began very early. Five of 22 were taking lessons by age 4, another 5 by age 6, and 11 more by aged 8. This leaves only one ‘late’ starter, aged 9 or 10: not a bass player but a viola player. Two bass players were taking lessons by age 6, but presumably on a smaller instrument. The oldest beginners, aged 13-14, learned to play larger instruments — the bassoon and the trombone.

3. Did your primary school offer a good quality music program?

Almost half said no.


By instrument

The woodwind and lower string players were the most positive: 100% of the flutes, bassoons and double bassists gave a positive answer. The unhappiest were the trombonists, but perhaps there is not a big role for the trombone in primary school.

By type of school

37% of those attending government schools and 78% of those attending independent school said yes, as did 67% of those attending Catholic school.

4. In what country did you attend primary school?

Australia 85%

Other 15%

By instrument

All the children attending primary school in other countries played viola, cello or bass, or bassoon.

5. In which country did you graduate from high school?

Australia 85%

Other 15%

The response was the same as for primary school. Since the entire schooling took place in those other countries, it would be reasonable to speculate that these players immigrated to Australia after their schooling and possibly their tertiary education was complete.

6. Was your secondary school a government school, Catholic school, independent school or other?

Nationally, primary and secondary, 71% of schools are government schools, 18% are Catholic and 11% are independent. Independent schools have more funds per student at their disposal and are perceived as usually having much better provision of music education than schools overall in the other two systems. Catholic schools are generally supposed to have music programs at a similar level of provision as government schools, or possibly worse; we have no research to support this. It might be noted that Catholic schools are not necessarily organised on a state-wide basis. In NSW, for instance, the organisation is Diocesan. This make the collection of data about the school systems even more complicated.

Independent schools and the associated musical opportunities are over-represented in the school education of our cohort. Catholic schools are under-represented.

The assumptions about better relative resourcing of independent schools may not apply in this sample because a number of respondents attended the Sydney Conservatorium High School and possibly other government selective schools that are well provided for in music.

Only 3 members of our sample attended a Catholic school so statistics about the Catholic system in this survey are very vulnerable to chance.

7. During your school years, where did you take your instrumental lessons?

All 33 members of the cohort responded.

The first thing to note is that all respondents answered and all took instrumental lessons. Without individual instruction, it is almost certain that an orchestral career would not be possible.

Most of this activity did not happen in schools. It is interesting that 8 of the 9 who volunteered extra information took lessons at their high school, most at the Sydney Conservatorium High School. To be admitted to this school, applicants would need to demonstrate talent achieved, obviously, in their primary school years. For many, that would depend upon access to free instrumental instruction and in government schools at primary level, that is available only in Queensland and Western Australia, as an elective.


By type of school

38% of attendees at independent schools took their lessons at their school, whereas only half that percentage, 19%, of those at government schools did so. None of the Catholic school students took lessons at school. For all three, the predominant source of lessons was the private teacher although least so (46%) for students at independent schools.

8. Please comment on the music program in your primary school. Tick a box and then write about the best and worst points.

22 out of 33 took the trouble to comment. Most were positive about the school music program. We could say that these programs had an important place in their early career development.


Type of school

70% of attendees at independent schools said their programs were good, 10% said they were fair and 20% said poor. 35% of those attending public schools said there was no music program;

25% said their program was good, 10% fair and 30% poor. Two of the three Catholic school respondents said their programs were good but for the other one, there was no program. So the independent schools are the clear winners at primary level for this sample of musicians. Further comments are included at the end of the paper.

9. Please comment on the music program in your secondary school. Tick a box and then write about the best and worst points.

Only 3 out of 33 respondents found their secondary school music programs to be poor. 70% thought they were good.

31 people offered comments. Most were positive, some extremely positive, about the school programs. Some answers were very detailed and articulate. Clearly, for many respondents, their secondary school music programs were important to career development. However, a number attended the Conservatorium High School and it may be that others were qualified by their talent to enter schools with unusually good music programs. Remember also the unusually high number of respondents who attended independent schools which may have been better resourced on average that the other schools.


Type of school

80% of attendees at both government and independent schools wrote that their secondary school music programs were good, whereas only one of the 3 Catholic school students experienced a good program. For both government and independent schools, 10% were reported as having fair music programs and 10% were poor. One Catholic school had a fair program and the third had no program.

10. After you had completed secondary school, where did you attend conservatorium?

We know informally that young musicians study overseas for many reasons other than a choice of the educational institution — eg to experience the musical life of other countries or cultures, or to build contacts that can enlarge career prospects. (Significant aspects of your music education, Q16: International study so that I could compare myself with musicians from overseas.)
Among these respondents, it was only one percussionist and a number of string players who studied outside Australia. Only 5 reported which country or countries they went to; those were USA (5), Germany (1) and Italy (1).


Type of school attended

About one third of Catholic and independent school students did their undergraduate study abroad, compared with 15% of government school students. 20% of independent school students did not attend conservatorium, compared with 5% of government school students and no Catholic students.

11. What degree did you take?

Only one respondent has no tertiary qualification. By way of interest, this compares with the MCA’s parallel survey of successful contemporary musicians which found that only 37% had tertiary music qualifications.


Instrument played

The postgraduate degrees were held by a flautist, violinists and violists.

Type of school attended

Most of those holding Certificate or Diploma qualifications attended government schools. 50% of those holding postgraduate qualifications attended independent schools and 27% of those who had attended independent schools held postgraduate qualifications. Only 10% of those who had attended public schools achieved a postgraduate qualification.

12. If you undertook post-graduate study (i.e beyond a Bachelor degree), where did you do it?

Australia 36%

Another country 73%

Numbers studying in other countries: USA, 6; UK 5; Germany 3; France, Hong Kong, Netherlands, 1.


Type of school attended

The students from the independent schools were the least likely to travel overseas (38% of 8 respondents compared with 82% of government school students).

13. How many hours a day did you routinely practise when in conservatorium?


Instrument played

A trombonist and some lower string players practised the longest — 5-6 hours. Most string and percussion players practised 3-4 hours or more. The woodwind players mostly practised for 2-3 hours.

Type of school attended

37% of the government school students practised more than 4 hours a day, and 26% more than 5 hours. 20% of independent school students practised more than 4 hours and none practised more than 5 hours. Two of the three Catholic school students practised more than 4 hours.

14. How old were you when you took your first regular job in a professional orchestra?

Since 61% of respondents hold bachelor degrees, usually completed after the age of 20, 33% of our players must have held regular orchestral positions before they completed their degrees. However, the narrative responses suggest that a number of players interpret the word ‘regular’ to mean regular, or frequent, casual work rather than working with a full time appointment.

One respondent reports that four weeks after completing the HSC, they joined the Australian Chamber Orchestra!


Type of school attended

There are quite different patterns for the different categories of school. 40% of those who had attended government schools were in their first orchestral positions by the age of 20 with another 25% two years later, compared with only 10% for independent schools with another 20% two years later. Overall, students from independent schools take their first regular orchestral positions later than students from government schools.

15. What were the most significant factors in your music education? (This question is intentionally left very open.)

32 responded.

Among the responses were some wonderful, articulate, insightful observations and we are grateful for them.

Here are the factors cited.

Top of the list were the teachers. It is not always possible to know whether the references were to the teachers who gave individual instrumental lessons or those institutional teachers who taught, for instance, ensemble playing. When this was unclear, we opted for the former. 26 of the 32 cited these teachers and there were another half dozen references to teachers who may have been school or conservatorium program teachers.

11 cited youth orchestras. 11 cited their high schools, and in particular the music specialist high schools. 6 referred to musical households or family support. 4 thought choral music performance was important, 4 mentioned performance activity although we might imagine that many would have assumed that its importance goes without saying; another 3 referred to chamber music activity. 5 mentioned broad listening. There were a few mentions of the importance of music in primary school, more about secondary school, and a lot of comment about experiences in conservatoriums. A couple mentioned music camp, and two more mentioned international study.

Other factors mentioned were free concerts, community bands and music theatre, experience on the job, self-motivation, hard work, patience — and fun.

Here are some quotations from respondents:

Having a Primary school music specialist was vital. Having music education as a normal part of everyday at school, right from the early years was invaluable. I think it helped me achieve academically at school also, because the listening skills you develop learning music as well as the discipline of learning a musical instrument enhance your overall learning ability. It was FUN and provided a different way of learning — it breaks up the “serious school day”, you are learning just as much but in a different way. High school was obviously an incredibly important part of becoming a professional musician for me — at that time no other school could provide the kind of experiences we were given. Also being right in the middle of the Conservatorium meant that every day you were completely surrounded by music. You couldn’t help but soak it all up!

The family, the teaching institutions, and mentors. Starting off with a great teacher. Access to chamber music and youth orchs from an early age. Having music in the house all the time …

Growing up in a musical environment.

Again. One of the most significant factors would have to be my upbringing in a musical household. We always sang and listened to music and went to concerts. My father had a large collection of classical records and these were always being played in the home. We talked about the music and musicians a great deal. Without doubt, the music environment at my secondary school kept my musical interest through the teenage years as did the involvement with in ensemble activities at the Conservatorium. The most significant influences however would be my participation in the National Music Camp and AYO programmes and my individual teachers. The former allowed me to meet and work with leading professional players who served as role models and to work with like-minded young players and benefit from the motivation that this competition and collegiality provided. The latter enabled me to work on a regular one to one basis with really outstanding instrumentalists who were inspiring musicians and proven exponents of the art form. There is no substitute for this individual type of mentorship.

Here is a telling comment on the situation in tertiary music education. One-on-one high quality lessons with world-class musicians and lecturers. Genuinely focused educational emphasis on producing the highest quality musicians by instilled quality & opportunity ahead of quantity. Inspired musician-led institution not associated with any university & its inherent emphasis on class sizes over quality of human achievement.

This player was guided — and pushed when necessary — by their teacher towards a professional career. Realism is a key component of professional development — music education needs to be able to define the attributes sought of a performer and guide them in their study, offer alternate employment opportunities to those who are not going to achieve their aspiration of a professional musician, focus on creating informed musical graduates who can use their education to secure a living.

This was a telling argument for the value of chamber music, which otherwise was not much mentioned. It also gives a sense of what is at stake for a classical musician: I took a slightly different path in that instead of concentrating on studying solo repertoire and focusing on technique, I chose to follow my passion for chamber music. As a member of a string quartet, I studied with the greatest quartets gracing the world stage, from Tokyo String Quartet to St Lawrence; Keller Quartet, Takacs and many more. Through this exposure I learnt about different traditions of performance practice, different approaches to highly idiomatic languages. And through intense study of string quartet repertoire, I learnt about the most important principles of ensemble playing, and hence, the necessity for strong intonation, understanding of gesture, how to balance, how to conduct a rehearsal, how to put a program together quickly and efficiently, and of course, how to perform under immense pressure.

16. Do you perform music in other musical genres?

Non-orchestral classical genres 85%

Non-classical genres 54%

26 responded. 16 cited genres, often more than one. These included early music, new classical music, chamber music and brass band. Among the non-classical genres, by far the most popular was jazz (7 play it), then contemporary and pop (3) and world (2).

MCA has conducted a parallel survey of successful contemporary musicians. The crossover by classical musicians into other genres (27%) is much greater than the crossover of contemporary musicians into classical music (8%).

17. What directions would you like your career to take in the medium-term future?

25 responded

10 specifically state their desire to continue with orchestral playing; 6 want to improve their playing and most of those are among the 10. Stay in the same job but continue to learn and improve myself. One says Give 100% always.

10 also want to be involved in chamber music performance and another 10 state that teaching is important to them. Only 4 mention exploring other genres, and no genres are named.

I am still at the beginning of my orchestral career and therefore very happy to be on a journey of discovery in this respect. My passion is still chamber music and hope to pursue this to a high international standard in the years to come. My thirst for knowledge increases the more I discover and hope to undertake further post-graduate study. I would like to improve the infrastructure for small chamber music ensembles in Australia. Tertiary education institutions should be encouraged to embrace resident ensembles as assets that can be used not only as an educational tool but as a branding/ambassadorial tool. Exposure to small chamber ensembles from an early age is essential to build up tomorrow’s audience for chamber music and orchestral music alike but will create greater demand and therefore greater opportunity for musicians and presenting agencies.

Only 1 mentions conducting, only 1 mentions composing. Other things mentioned once are: learn another instrument, do postgraduate study, commission new works. Continue to contribute to and support the health and growth of the art-form, both through my work and outside, in order to assure its relevance & integration with the Australian cultural landscape.

And: I would love to play as much as possible with others that love to make music. Repertoire is not as important as the people.


Richard Letts, May 30, 2013. Entered on knowledge base 17 June 2013.

Dr Richard Letts AM is the founder and Director of The Music Trust, founder and former Executive Director of the Music Council of Australia (now Music Australia) and Past President of the International Music Council. He has held senior positions in music and culture in Australia and the United States, advocated for music and music education, conducted research, written policy documents, edited four periodicals, published four books and hundreds of articles.

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