It’s that time of year (spring) when matriculating students around the country agonise over their choices for tertiary study.

It Is Important to Know the Available Options

For most, tertiary study is almost a given, when thirty — even twenty — years ago, the percentage considering higher education would have been much smaller. For students considering music as one or more of their options, the choice is rarely understood as well as it might be. Their teachers often guide them toward the institution at which they studied themselves, as do parents (who may not have studied music at all). Far too often, the choice of institution comes before the choice of program.

As this article is being written, the first in a stream of work experience students has just completed his allocated time at Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University. In one of our chats, he asked me about study in ‘music production’ which, on close questioning, seemed to equate more with music technology than anything else. After a week of being exposed to the diverse activities of Queensland Conservatorium, our young work experience student had a very different view. In addition to work in recording studios and trouble-shooting with university IT support, he had experienced a live-to-air broadcast at the new ABC building next door1, and back-of-house support for a music theatre show with thirty vocalists in solo, small group and full company work on stage. He’d seen the work which goes into lighting them, and the complexity of thirty wireless microphones being manipulated with only one rehearsal. This young Year 11 student had his eyes open to many more variations upon the rather vague theme he had started with. Having come into the institution with only limited experience of Garage Band software, this guitarist left at the end of a week with his head swimming with ideas of what he might do when he leaves school next year. The transformation from a shy, guess-the-only-thing-I-can-do attitude to now-I-have-lots-to-think-about viewpoint was remarkable.

The truth is, that this young man represents so many young people who find themselves inside a conservatorium (or any university music program) without any serious thought to other options which might be available to them, or — heaven forbid — other university music departments which might better suit their needs. The young man in question has learned that if he does choose to study audio engineering, then Queensland Conservatorium is not his only option. In Brisbane, there are two private providers — the JMC Academy and the School of Audio Engineering (SAE) both offer variations on a theme of audio engineering, each of them in accelerated mode over two years instead of three. Our young friend knows that in making his choice, he needs to look carefully at the distribution of credit points, the weighting of various activities, and the content of the program in order to decide which program matches his needs. He knows that being a musician first is important at the Conservatorium, but not necessary at JMC and SAE. He realises that this simply means the graduate is different, and he can decide which of those differences is for him.

These are the questions that all potential music students should ask themselves when making their choices for study in music. If a vocalist, do they want to have opera as one of their options, or concentrate on recital work, or music theatre? The institution they choose needs to provide the training which suits the expectation. Whilst a vocalist might study many operatic arias, unless they have some time on stage, they will lack the experience sought by opera companies choosing singers for their Young Artists programs. A trumpet player may well have learned the entire repertoire of orchestral excerpts for trumpet in readiness for an orchestral audition, but without high quality ensemble experience, she will lack some of the experience valuable to earning that orchestral position. Being the ‘only tuba in the orchestra’ is not an advantage when that orchestra doesn’t play repertoire which includes a tuba part.

Growing Financial Pressures on Tertiary Music Schools

Australian tertiary music schools all have their differences.2 Even those which look similar have strengths which are more obvious on close scrutiny. Sometimes historical strengths don’t survive the distance, especially in the current climate of higher education funding.

The challenge to meet budgets is a constant in all tertiary music schools around Australia. In the forty years this writer has been associated with conservatoria and universities, there hasn’t been one when budget issues have not dared the incumbents to be creative whilst confronted by limiting financial support. Confronted by their universities to meet budget, some music schools have chosen to limit or abolish that bastion of music training, the single study lesson. To do this, most have changed focus from traditional training to more industry-based programs which are not reliant on performance training, as in the case of James Cook University. The recent confrontation between the School of Music at the Australian National University (ANU) and the ANU Chancellery is such a work in progress. Without single-study tuition available on campus, performance students are responsible for seeking their own tuition in order to meet the course requirements. This isn’t entirely new, having been the situation at the University of Sydney when I was a student there some forty years ago. However, having experienced those conditions, I would not recommend them.

The recent Higher Education Base Funding Review has acknowledged that performance training requires a higher level of support from government but there is no indication that government will act on that suggestion in the foreseeable future. Meantime, higher education music institutions are at the mercy of their universities in regard to the level of support they receive. Those which have to make ends meet on the amount provided by the federal government are challenged indeed, and most have already modified their programs, some offering creative and individual approaches to music education and training. Those which continue to boast traditional music programs at a high level of quality are dependent on the goodwill of their Vice Chancellors, and the understanding of fellow heads of school who might also wish to have the VC’s special consideration.

Curiously, the consequence of this is that students now in Year 12 making choices about where to study really need to take a closer look at each of the options available to them. Certainly, students choosing the ANU School of Music last year might not have thought much about funding, and whilst the ANU insists that no current student will be disadvantaged, the adjustments being made are certain to have some consequences over the duration of current student enrolments.

It’s not only higher music education that is under threat. Just as vocational programs were becoming more popular as stand-alone and transitional options leading to higher education, and at a time when some schools have been offering vocational programs, funding to such programs is now at risk, with the Victorian Government reducing support to both.

It would seem that students who seek to study music beyond their school years have even more homework to do than before!


Helen Lancaster. Entered on knowledge base 28 May 2013. Originally published in Music Forum, Vol. 18, No. 4, August (Spring) 2012, 22-23.


  1. The ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) moved into its new Brisbane Headquarters in January 2012, a very necessary move judging from this description! Ed.↩︎
  2. See Music Study in Australia for descriptions of 29 tertiary schools.↩︎

Dr. Helen Lancaster offers advisory services to higher music education institutions, music teachers and arts organisations. She is a former Chair of the Music Council of Australia, and a Research Fellow at Queensland Conservatorium of Music. For the MCA she established the National Instrument Bank in 2008, and the Australian Youth Music Council in 2009. With a team of distinguished researchers, she undertook the audit of Post-Secondary Music Education and Training published with further analysis in this knowledge base as Music Study in Australia.

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