State of School Music Education

If Australia were in Europe, it would have 600 publicly supported music schools offering instruction to all comers. Including the external programs of the conservatoria, it actually has about 25 or 30. Could the community music school be the solution to our endless problem in making music education universally accessible?

The battle in Australia to offer an adequate music education in the schools seems never finally to be won. With funding cut-backs, the move to local management of schools, ever increasing competition between subject areas to claim classroom time and the pressure on students to find a secure career path, indications are that there is major attrition of the time and resources given music instruction in the public schools. Ironically, one’s impression is that the music provision in private schools has never been better. But excepting for a scattering of scholarships, that instruction is available only to their own students, and at a price.

It’s not that there has not been progress. The music programs available now are dazzling compared to a few decades ago, when there was very little offered.

But the gains always seem precarious — no sooner won than another threat emerges. And how can the threat be fought? Often it comes from the very people in charge of the education system. The concerned citizen would need commitment bordering on obsession to find the energy and months or years of persuasion to try to win these people over. Decisions made who knows when, who knows where; out of our hands.

Speaking personally, I do not believe that every school student should be forced to take music instruction. Our interest should be in the development of the particular skills and interests of each child. Some have a special talent and interest in music. Others have a predilection for theatre or dance or writing – or indeed science or maths, which, let us not forget, are also creative enterprises. Let each person follow his or her passions.

But I do believe that every student should have the opportunity to study music, and for long enough and intensively enough to gain some real understanding of it.

If the public schools cannot be depended upon to offer this opportunity, perhaps the interested citizenry can explore some alternatives that are more under its control. The obvious possibility is the community music school.

The Community Music School in Australia: Still a Pioneering Effort

To the extent that it has a history in Australia, the community music school is usually an institution created on the initiative of a number of citizens, to offer specialised music instruction to anyone, of any age, who is interested. They teach a range of instruments and usually some music classes, and offer opportunities to perform in an orchestra, bands, choirs, jazz groups and other ensembles.

In Australia, most of the community music schools are found in NSW. Initially, a number were established in country centres under the umbrella of the Sydney Conservatorium, with some minuscule funding from the state government. In some cases, local government or other government authorities have also given assistance in finding accommodation. Typically, in a good sized town like Tamworth or Orange, the enrolment will be of the order of 700 or 800. The subsidy usually pays for part of the administration, and to keep the schools going, students pay fees to cover the teacher costs and some of the overheads. There are very few such schools in other states. Government supported music instruction of this sort is sometimes available only through the extension programs of the conservatoria or university music departments.

It would be fair to say that excepting in the centres that have a music school, there is not a public expectation that it has an entitlement to such a resource (whereas it would expect the provision of a public library or football field). To establish a new school in Australia therefore is likely to have all the difficulties of a pioneering effort.

The 5,000 Music Schools of Europe

This is not the case in Europe. If we leave out Bulgaria and Italy, where there is as little provision as there is in Australia, there are more than 5,000 schools, with an average of one school for every 29,000 of population. Austria has the greatest number of schools when compared to population — 641 schools for 7.5 million people. Norway, with one quarter of Australia’s population, has 310. The Netherlands, which is perhaps the European country closest to Australia in population and living standards, is among the lowest, with 180 schools for 15 million people. But in fact, the number of students is relatively high, so the schools presumably are larger — not a surprise in such a geographically small country. In all, there are some 3,250,000 students attending the music schools, with hundreds of thousands more on waiting lists.

In stark comparison, Australia has perhaps fifteen community schools for 18 million people. Add in the extension programs of the conservatoria, and there are maybe 25 schools offering music instruction with some sort of government assistance.

This assistance in Australia is, however, almost invisible. Students generally pay the full going private rates for lessons, with governments contributing a little money towards overheads and buildings. In contrast, among the twenty European countries on which we have information, in only two does the government contribute less than half of the costs. The total government expenditures are of the order of AU$2.5 billion. On average, governments pay 75% of costs, with the students paying the other 25%. In 85% of countries, governments are paying 2/3 or more of the costs, with students paying 1/3, less, or nothing at all. The consistency in the overall level of government contributions is somewhat remarkable given the enormous variations between countries or even municipalities in the financial responsibilities accepted by various levels of government. Often, the major responsibility is accepted by the city or municipal government. Even more frequently the costs are shared according to some formula between two or even three levels of government.

Generally, in Europe, the music schools are attended at any one time by between 1% and 3% of the total population. On average, about 10% of the students are of adult age. This gives some sense of the likely uptake of music school services were they generally accessible — and affordable — in Australia. 2% of the Australian population equals 360,000 people. These European schools have certain requirements for the quality of their offerings. In a number of countries, the standards are monitored officially; in some countries, the schools are established by government statute. Many are not then community schools by our definition (established and controlled by the community) but their task is pretty much the same: e.g. they admit all interested persons regardless of age. Increasingly, there is special college education for their teachers, since for instance they work with all age groups, and they may have the opportunity to work in quite unconventional ways. Schools may teach other music-related art forms like dance, film or music theatre. Many teachers are on full salaries, generally comparable to those of school music teachers.

While these music schools offer instruction to people who have no professional aspirations, they also serve as preparatory schools for the professionally bound students. Consequently, it is usual to have a system of regular pupil assessments.

Pros and Cons for Community Music Schools in Australia

PRO: The willingness of the authorities to offer an adequate level of music instruction through the schools is in question — if not, in some areas, constantly, certainly periodically. It is very difficult for the music community or supporters of music generally to have much impact on the decisions of the bureaucracy. However, they can take things into their own hands by establishing a community music school, and so ensuring that music teaching is available regardless of the current fashions in the education departments.

CON: It is only through the public schools that opportunities can be provided for every child to learn music, free of charge. If we set up community music schools everywhere, we risk undermining music in the schools. We should push for more music in the public schools.

PRO: This certainly is an issue. We do not want to damage music in the schools, and there would need to be continuing attention to that issue. However, it is our understanding that generally the music schools in Europe co-exist with healthy school music programs. We need to envision an ecology in which the two are somehow mutually supportive. One of the ways that music schools can help the public schools is through building an interest in music-making in the local population, which then gives greater support to the school music program.

PRO: Adequate instruction must include instrumental instruction, and after some progress, this must be given individually. It should be noted that such instrumental instruction as is available in schools is not necessarily free of charge, and often is not given individually. Further, instrumental instruction in the schools in some states is even now being reduced drastically. The community school can enlist the skills of specialist instructors in the particular instruments. Often, in the schools, circumstances force teachers into giving instruction on instruments which they themselves can barely play. This is courageous, but potentially as damaging as it is beneficial.

CON: Music learning is not just about playing. A lot of kids learn to play the notes without having any comprehension of the music. School music programs can offer a very rich diet of all styles of music. They can teach students to understand music, and find more pleasure from listening to it intelligently.

PRO: The schools may indeed be a better context for that sort of instruction. Perhaps we see here something of the shape of the ecology in which school music programs and community music schools share.

PRO: Music schools can work without subsidy because there is still a tradition that people will pay for music instruction over an extended period. This means that they can be set up without an enormous input of public funds, and have a high level of financial self-reliance. Therefore establishment of a music school is something that is within the powers of interested citizens.

CON: But then the only people that can attend them are those who can afford the commercial rate fees. What about people with less money? Are these schools only for an elite?

PRO: There are two solutions to that problem. One is the establishment of a scholarship fund which can pay part of the fees for students from less well-off families. This at least helps at the margins. The other is that government could provide funds on the European model and students then all pay a fee that most can afford. Probably there would be special provision for students who cannot pay even that amount. Now of course neither of these would be available at the outset. But consider: are the chances for scholarship or government funding better before the schools exist, or after they exist and the case can be made on the basis of their demonstrated value to the middle class? In any case, why exclude the possibility of instruction for those who will pay for it because there are others who are unable or unwilling?

MORE PROS: Community music schools are small, flexible institutions that can respond with very diverse programs to needs and opportunities in the community.

They can serve not only the school age population. For instance, they can offer programs for people of post-school age who characteristically leave school and find nowhere to use the musical skills learned there. They can draw together the musical skills and interests of the entire community. They can develop programs for special populations like the handicapped, or special interests such as those in the various forms of multicultural music.

In country towns, music schools can be some guarantee of an income for professional musicians, and actually make it possible for professionals to reside there. For instance, after the Orange (NSW) centre was set up, it was able in due course to build up a teaching staff of 28, a good number of whom moved from the city. With such a staff in place, there can be a boost to the local orchestra; groups can form for a concert series and performances in local schools. In Orange, the youth orchestra, now youth orchestras, attract some 200 kids from miles around each Saturday. The whole musical life moves to a new level.1

Each year one, two and three day workshops are run in Orange and at other regional locations.

In country towns, a good private teacher may take up residence, build a practice, and then decide to move away. Typically, in such a situation, there is no replacement and the whole enterprise simply collapses. The community music school can ensure continuity, taking responsibility for finding a successor to the teacher and maintaining the development of the students. This may seem a minor point, but in fact it is one of the things that has crippled the development of musical life in country centres.

The arguments for music centres in metropolitan centres are a little different, since a range of instruction may be readily available from private teachers. (This is not necessarily the case in the outer suburbs, however.) Music schools can offer instruction with some guarantee of quality; they can present all manner of musical programs that would not develop spontaneously in the community — e.g. organised instruction in ethnic musics, or special workshops with composers, or special music festivals etc. They bring together people with musical interests for mutual stimulation and support. They can offer physical facilities for practice, rehearsal and performance that otherwise would not be available — a special problem in the crowded centre cities.

There is a very strong case for a movement to establish community music schools in Australia. We can expect further discussion of the possibilities and problems in future issues.

The Functions of the European Music School

According to the European Union of Music Schools, the functions are:

  • promoting interest in music and musical understanding from early childhood
  • providing proper music teaching at a primary level, with instrumental tuition, voice training and dancing lessons
  • bringing up a new generation of amateur musicians
  • creating opportunities for group music-making in a variety of forms and styles
  • discovering and fostering exceptional musical talents
  • preparing young people for training as professional musicians
  • collaborating with general schools and other educational and cultural organisations and institutions
  • educating informed and critical listeners
  • providing musical education for adults.

This Australian writer can think of a number of important possible additions to this worthy but very conventional list. Can the reader?


Richard Letts, Music Forum Vol. 3 No. 1, 1996. Entered on knowledge base 26 September 2013 as an article which still has a large message to convey so many years later.


  1. In-house ensembles in Orange include (accessed 26.9.13): Orange Symphony Orchestra, Orange Youth Orchestra, Orange Conservatorium Youth Choir, Symphonic Choir, Concert Band, Junior String Ensembles, Brass Ensembles, Flute and Wind Ensembles Encore (Adult Recreational) Orchestra, Several Chamber ensembles. ED↩︎

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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