This survey was carried out with the collaboration of the management and musicians of the orchestra, to which the Music Council of Australia expresses its appreciation.

Some Key Outcomes

  • The orchestra has 45 members. 25, or 56%, responded to the survey.
  • There is a fairly good distribution across orchestral instruments. Missing are the players of cor Anglais, tuba, percussion, harp.
  • Only 4 respondents were 30 or younger.
  • 76% of respondents were taking music lessons by the time they were 8, including all of the string players, and all but one (4%) of the remainder by age 12.
  • 32% of respondents had taken instrumental lessons at their regular schools, 80% from private teachers. (Some had done both.)
  • 44% of respondents said their primary school music program was poor or non-existent. Only 32% thought it was good. Interestingly, only 18% of those attending independent primary school thought their programs were good. However, there were a good number of enthusiastic or at least positive comments about the good, or even fair, primary school music programs.
  • By contrast, 84% of respondents said their secondary school music program was good, 12% fair, and there was little difference between government and independent schools.
  • 63% of respondents had attended a government secondary school and 40% attended an independent school. None attended a Catholic school. Nationally, 71% of schools are government schools and 11% are independent. Our correspondents therefore disproportionately found their ways to independent schools, which are reputed to have better music education and facilities than government schools.
  • 46% of primary schools and 96% of secondary programs included classical music. This and the previous dot point suggest that the government schools attended may have been special interest schools.
  • Participation in high level youth orchestras was an important part of the educational experience.
  • All members have tertiary qualifications. 48% (12) hold postgraduate qualifications. 42% of these did their postgraduate study overseas.
  • Commonly, during their conservatorium years, respondents practised 2-3 hours a day (48%), with a range among respondents from 1-2 hours to 6 or more hours.
  • The most significant factors cited in their music education were inspiring teachers, supportive parents, conservatorium and youth orchestra education, ensemble and performance experience.
  • All but one held regular positions in a professional orchestra by the age of 30.
  • About one third perform in non-classical music genres.
  • Generally, respondents seem pleased with the orchestral life and the TSO. They would like more chamber music opportunities and a good number would like to teach more.

Matters of Significance

Of the many thousands of musicians educated in classical music performance, a small (if unknown) percentage achieve full time careers as performers. To achieve a position in the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, the musicians must demonstrate a very high level of performance skills. Therefore, an investigation of their music education may identify some elements leading to this success.

More than any other factor, the musicians themselves point to inspiring instrumental teachers as a main contributor to their education. Three quarters of the sample were taking lessons by age 8 and all but one by age 12. Nearly half said that their primary school music programs were poor or non-existent but all but one were taking instrumental lessons in their primary school years, 4 beginning at age 3-4.

The Music Council is not advocating a school music program that prepares every student for a life as an orchestral musician! However, this study could be taken to support the value of music education in the early years for everyone. Research in music education is consistent with the half-century-old theories of Piaget that children pass through a succession of phases of developmental readiness for learning. More recently, this has been confirmed with research into related brain development. For instance, motor skills and timing learnt by the age of 7 were associated with development of the corpus callosum and survival of these skills into later life; this particular development did not occur if the skills were taught after the age of 7.

It seems very likely that, beyond the primary school years, our respondents enrolled in schools believed to have superior music programs. Perhaps their talent was discovered in primary school and parents or schools were persuaded to nurture it in appropriate schools. Independent schools were highly over-represented and government secondary schools seemed to have programs that are not typical of the sector. The negative perception of some primary school programs has been noted. But there was very high approval of the secondary school programs, including those in government schools.

It is suggestive rather than conclusive, given the small numbers, that Queensland schools were over-represented and those in NSW and Victoria under-represented. At the primary school level, Queensland is reputed to have the best state system for music and NSW and Victoria the worst. Does this early advantage/disadvantage carry through to secondary level?

It is interesting that none of our respondents attended a Catholic school. In a parallel survey of members of the Sydney Symphony, only 9% attended a Catholic school although Catholic schools account for 18% of the national total. Clearly Diocesan schools would be categorised by respondents as Catholic. We are not sure whether respondents would classify some of the very high status schools like Riverview as Catholic or independent. Since we did not ask for the names of their schools, we cannot answer that question from this survey. However, it is possible that the Catholic systems need to review their music education offerings.

Nearly all respondents were members of high level youth orchestras. A good number attested to the importance and value of this experience. There was special emphasis on the state and local youth orchestras, perhaps with the Australian Youth Orchestra giving “further experience”, as one put it.

All of the respondents have formal tertiary qualifications – a bachelor degree or beyond. The clear inference is that such a qualification is a prerequisite to employment as an orchestral musician at this level even though there may be rare individuals that find another path. Nearly all of those taking higher qualifications attended secondary schools with good music programs. This may not be significant, since only 16% did not have good programs.

The respondents were asked about their career intentions into the medium term. The general picture that emerged was that they like the orchestral life, are happy in the TSO, but would like more opportunities to perform chamber music and intend to give more time to teaching. Sometimes, orchestra members in general are depicted as grumbling victims of a tyrannical, top-down regime. That most decidedly was not the picture presented of the TSO by the more than half of the members who responded to this survey.

The Survey

1. What instrument do you play?
Age when beginning instrumental instruction
The numbers are too small to reveal patterns except in the case of string instruments. 5 of 7 violinists were taking lessons by age 6, and 2 of 3 violists.

All but 1 of the 14 string players began by age 8. One cellist began at age 13-14, which is very uncharacteristic for string players. In fact, this person was the only player in the whole sample that began later than the age of 12. Those beginning at 11-12 were the oboist, a trumpet player and the tympani player.

2. What is your age?
3. There were two questions: How old were you when you first began to play an instruments? How old were you when you first took music lessons on an instrument?
The responses to the two questions were exactly the same.
4. In what Australian state or territory did you attend primary school the longest? (If you went to primary school in another country, tick that box and name the country.)
The countries were England, India, Israel and New Zealand.

5. In what Australian state or territory did you graduate from high school?
The “other countries” were England, Israel and New Zealand.

6. Was your secondary school a government, Catholic or independent school?
We are informed that the wealthier Catholic schools may classify themselves as independent schools and the Diocesan schools classify themselves as Catholic.

The response from TSO musicians is consistent with the response from 33 Sydney Symphony musicians in a parallel survey, of whom only 3 said they attended Catholic schools.

Nationally, 71% of schools are government schools, 18% are Catholic, and 11% are independent. Our sample therefore highly disproportionately attended independent schools; these schools are thought to be much wealthier than government or Catholic schools and many have elaborate music programs and facilities.

Responses to other questions suggest that the government schools attended at secondary level were in many cases specially resourced in music.

7. During your school years, where did you take your instrumental lessons?
Respondents may have learnt an instrument in more than one of these settings.

Type of school

A higher percentage of those attending independent schools took lessons at the school (33% to 21%). Only the students at government schools took lessons from a music school. Probably these differences are not very significant because of the small numbers involved in each category.

8. What was the quality of the music program in your primary school?

Respondents’ comments
Respondents were invited to add verbal comment and 20 (80%) did so. Many were enthusiastic and almost all were positive.

Was excellent. A wide range of instruments were available including fractionally sized string instruments for the younger student.

Nothing bad, 4 string ensembles, two bands an orchestra, and various choirs, bell ringers etc.

Best – Introduction music lessons were provided immediately with a brass teacher. – Progress was monitored properly with a reward system. – A suitable level of encouragement and follow up made by teachers. Worst – No individual lessons available, all lessons were in a group environment. – No ensembles available for orchestral instruments. – Little to no opportunity for individual or group performance. – Although teachers were competent in providing tuition for your instrument, they didn’t necessarily play it, ie. My first teacher was a trumpet player. (Trombone player. Well, he could have had a clarinet teacher.)

But: We had a choir however the teacher who took it was unable to control the group. We ended up learning sign language and “singing” and signing at the same time which was fun.


Type of school

Assessments of those attending government schools: good, 40%; fair 20%; poor 20%; non existent 20%.

Assessments of those attending independent schools: good, 18%; fair 45%; poor 27%; non existent 9%.

So the valuation of the independent schools was quite poor as compared with the government schools. This goes against expectation.

9. What was the quality of the music program in your secondary school?

Respondents’ comments

5 respondents state specifically that they attended special interest government schools. Here are some quotes from among a number of interesting testimonies.

Being a Special Interest Music school (Brighton Secondary School), the music program was excellent for my development as a musician. I had plenty of opportunities to perform in bands, orchestras, choirs, in both the jazz and classical genres, as well as having several hours of theory, performance and music history classes each week. This gave me the perfect platform to continue on with my music studies at university, and gave me a clear advantage over a majority of the other students at my chosen university. I think the best point to having specialist music schools in SA was that you were surrounded by like-minded students of a similar standard. Most of the students in my year have not gone on to pursue music professionally, however a vast majority are now holding important positions as engineers, research scientists, doctors etc. The worst point may be the lack of quality individual instrumental teachers at the school, although I was already having lessons outside of school before I came into high school, so this did not affect me greatly. level of provision is, of course, atypical of government secondary schools generally. The point about students at this school, who spent a great deal of time studying music rather than the normal academic subjects, went on to distinguished non-music careers. Is music a contributor to this success or just not an obstruction? Much research suggests that it might be a contributor.

My Government funded High School had an excellent music programme.It had a full symphony orchestra,Jazz band,Choir and small specialist vocal group.It also put into production every year a full Gilbert & Sullivan Opera complete with costumes and props hired from the G & S Society the orchestra being made up of students and dedicated local amateurs! I can’t think of anything bad! respondents later mention exposure to a range of genres as an important part of their music education.

School had a reputation as one of the best government schools for music in the state. Comprehensive music curriculum with good teachers and good instrumental program. Best thing – inspiring teacher who ran a chamber ensemble and gave us plenty of opportunities to perform – probably the single biggest reason I choose to pursue music as a career. Worst thing – No full orchestra, only wind bands and instrument group specific ensembles. Respondent is a clarinettist. The problem is the lack of programs to train string players and that goes back to inadequacies beginning in primary school. If it’s possible in Venezuela… But that is another discussion.

We had one class in grade 7 which was the orchestra class. Each student learned an orchestral instrument borrowed from the school if necessary, and we had more music time allotted than the other grade 7 groups, in order to practise and rehearse, culminating in a country tour at the end of the year. Limited tutors made it difficult at times. I found myself (as a grade 7 A M E B student) being asked to tutor my school friends)

The worst were the actual music classes. Terribly uninteresting and an uninspired teacher. Echoed by another respondent. The best was school orchestra and chamber music ensembles which we did after school. musically skilled principal said to the MCA that in a subject like music, every teacher should be an inspiration. This is an objective that cannot be achieved – but it would be a very good objective, nevertheless. Do the bureaucratic processes allow it? But that is for another study.

1 hour a week of singing. Considered by the school totally unimportant. reports suggest that this is a common attitude among non-specialist schools. That also is for another study.


Type of school

There was little difference in the assessments of students at government schools and independent schools. The one school cited as having a poor program was a government school but this is not statistically significant.

Degree taken
Nearly all of those taking higher qualifications attended secondary schools with good music programs and the remainder attended schools with fair programs. None attended the school with a poor program.

10. Did your primary school program include classical music?

One person from the 25 respondents skipped this question. 46% (11) said yes.


Type of school

Yes for 36% of government schools but 60% of independent schools.

11. Did your secondary school music program include classical music?

All responded. 96% said yes.


Type of school

The one school without a classical music component was a government school.

12. Were you a member of a high level youth orchestra? Which?
23 of 25 responded. Respondents obviously were at some time members of more than one orchestra. Probably they attended a local orchestra during the year and joined the AYO in summer.


Type of school

53% of those attending independent schools participated in AYO but only 26% of those attending government schools. Was there a financial impediment? On the other hand, a higher percentage of government school students participated in state or other orchestras.

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


Type of school

Surprisingly, only government school students went on to study in conservatoria in other countries.

14. Which degree did you take?

Respondents have shown, in some cases, more than one qualification. 15 (60%) completed Bachelor degrees and there were 14 honours or postgrad degrees shared among 12 respondents.


Type of school

Accomplishments of those attending government and independent schools were quite similar.

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

16 responded. 63% of the 16 did postgrad study in Australia and 44% studied overseas. Some doing postgraduate study did not complete postgraduate qualifications.


Type of school

Virtually the same percentages of those from government and independent schools studied abroad.

Youth orchestra

Participants in youth orchestras other than AYO or state orchestras are more likely to have studied overseas and those from state orchestras least likely.

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


Type of instrument

Splitting so many types of instruments across so many categories of duration results in small and unreliable numbers. Nevertheless, it is interesting that all of the woodwind players practised 2-3 hours a day. Two in three of the brass players practised for 3-4 hours. One French hornist, the tympani player and one violinist practised for 6+ hours. But one violinist and one violist practised for 1-2 hours a day. For the other violinists, 2 practised 2-3 hours, 1 practised 3-4 hours and 2 practised 4-5 hours. It would be interesting to see whether there was any correlation with later professional success.

Type of school

Considerably higher percentages of students from government than independent schools practised for longer hours. (This was the case also for Sydney Symphony musicians, as revealed in a parallel survey.) 20% of those from independent schools practised 3-4 hours or more, compared with 60% of those from government schools. There is a study to be done there!

17. What were the most significant factors in your music education?

A verbal response was invited for this question. 23 out of 25 responded.

These factors were named. Some respondents named only one or two factors, others a number. Below is shown the number of mentions of each factor.

Inspiring teachers. Clearly a number of respondents referred to private instrumental teachers, others to instrumental teachers in institutions; some were simply unclear. Total number of mentions of teachers, 14, of which 8 seemed to be private teachers. One mention of Suzuki training. No-one specifically mentioned school teachers although there were mentions of school programs or experiences.

Parents, family. Support by parents, 6; mention of musical families, 2.

Conservatorium, 4. Other responses may have implied that an important activity took place in conservatorium – e.g. theory, or aural training.

Youth orchestra (state), 3. In an earlier question, respondents were asked about their youth orchestra experience and 12 made statements about its value and importance.

Professional training orchestra: SSO Sinfonia, 2, the old ABC Sinfonia 1

Ensemble experience, 3.

Performance opportunities, 3. Presumably the ensembles also brought performance experiences.

High school music program, 2, of which 1 was a special interest high school. However, respondents had already had an opportunity to comment on their high school music programs and a number were very positive.

Self-discipline, 2.

Access to facilities, 2, instruments, 1, a range of musical styles, 1.

Other things, mentioned once: Good conductors, audition experiences, peers, overseas study.

18. How old were you when you took your first regular professional position in an orchestra?


Type of school

Those who had attended government schools tended to take their first positions a little later. 33% of former government school students began their first positions when 27 or older compared with 10% of independent school students.

40% of independent school students began their jobs by age 22, but only 27% of government school students. Is this significant?

Once again, the numbers are very small and so susceptible to chance.

19. Do you perform music in other musical genres?

Response Response

Percent Count

Non-orchestral classical music 76% 13

Non-classical music 47% 8

16 responded so the percentages shown are out of 16.

The non-classical genres of interest:

Jazz, 3

Rock, 2

One each for Latin, Greek traditional, stage band, brass band, wedding band, contemporary Christian, music theatre, theatre and movie recording.


Youth orchestra

Participants in state youth orchestras are less likely to perform in non-classical genres.

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

19 of 25 responded.

There were some clear themes. Overall, one has the impression of a group of people that is happy in performing orchestral music and to be members of the TSO.

Continue orchestral playing. 8; one would like the experience of playing with other orchestras.

Chamber music. 8 people would like more chamber music opportunities; a couple mentioned being paid for them.

Teaching. 7 would like to do more teaching. A few specifically mentioned teaching at tertiary level.

Keep improving skills, 4.

Opportunities for solo performances, 3.

Become a principal, 2, or achieve a better position, 1.

Achieve remuneration better matching skills, 2.

Other responses, mentioned once: conducting opportunities, job security, record Australian music.


Richard Letts, June 2013. Entered on knowledge base 16 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.

No comment yet, add your voice below!

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *