Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Focus on national tests robs children of true learning

Wake up, Australia, or we'll have a nation of unimaginative robots.

School is back and it is a matter of regrettable fact that large numbers of children in state and independent schools will be subjected to a style of teaching directed exclusively to producing satisfactory results in national literacy and numeracy tests and consequently scoring high ratings with My School.

I want to make my stance very clear from the outset: NAPLAN tests and My School have nothing to do with the education of a child. This abhorrent and insidious method of assessing children, teachers and their schools needs to stop now. Principals, teachers and parents need to stand up and be counted and resist this unnatural activity, which only succeeds in turning education into some sort of cheap competition in which the last consideration seems to be the mind of the child.

Screaming the words literacy and numeracy from Canberra does not constitute having an educational policy. In fact, the race to become the most literate and numerate schools with the best rankings nationally is exacting a terrible price.

Evidence is now available that schools all over the country are cutting back on arts education to devote more time to subjects that will make children literate. It can be demonstrably proven that activities used in teaching for the national tests destroy individuality, stifle creativity, stultify thought and make all children respond in the same way - a sort of educational circus in which the children are the trained animals and the teachers the poorly paid ringmasters.

The very things that promote literacy and numeracy are the arts, beginning with serious arts education in the early years. If we want a creative nation, an imaginative nation, a thinking nation and a nation of individuals, then we must increase the time for arts education, especially music education. If we want a nation of non-imaginative robots who can do tests, then we are well on the way to achieving that condition.

Parents need to know that it is through participation in arts subjects that the mind, imagination, spirit and soul of a child are stimulated. Through this stimulation comes a bonus in all other areas of learning.

Music, for example, when it is properly taught, requires an extraordinarily high level of listening and concentration from the student. It requires the student to have a capacity to work in the abstract, an ability to work across several skill areas simultaneously and the ability to rationalise this verbally.

Children's involvement in musical activity has a profound effect on the development of the child's general learning. It is now proven beyond doubt that children who are engaged in arts activities, especially music, have advantages in all areas of learning. The research is in, proven and beyond doubt. Why, then, with the evidence so overwhelmingly supporting children's involvement in arts education, would schools decide to reduce teaching time in these important fields?

In supporting statements of this nature, let's examine one school in Victoria, the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School, where senior students spend half a week on the academic curriculum and half a week on their chosen arts discipline. Each year the students from this school seem to do extraordinarily well at the year 12 examinations in spite of only spending half the time on academic work.

How can this be? My view is that they are highly motivated children who have, early in their lives, encountered enlightened parenting and teaching and are motivated to work hard in all disciplines in an environment that promotes creativity, imaginative thinking and individuality. In short, most of them have had early, prior opportunities.

All children in Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark seem to have such opportunities; why can't all Australian children? By ignoring arts education we say to our children: ''You are too stupid to have good education in the arts - your brains will never cope with intense learning in music, for example, so we will only do the bare minimum with you in any arts education and really concentrate on getting you through your NAPLAN tests.''

Wake up, Australia, before it's too late. Teachers, parents and children need to let governments know that we are heading into a cultural and educational crisis unless we address these issues now.

Richard Gill is the music director of Victorian Opera.

This article was first published in The Age on 9 February 2011

Monday, January 24, 2011

Pop goes the Weasel

It’s time to stand up and let the world know, at least in Australia, that if we are to be a truly creative nation then we need to nurture creativity from the start of a child’s life and we need to do it properly.

Music education, the prime mover in nurturing children’s creativity, is often maltreated by people, let’s call them teachers, who think that children should have a diet of only popular music, because, AND WAIT FOR THIS...THE CHILDREN LIKE IT!

What fabulous reasoning; children tend to like sugar: should they therefore have only a diet of sugar?

By giving children ONLY popular music you say to them in an oblique but very forceful way: ‘ Children, you are too dumb to understand any music other than popular music.

Your brains will never understand Jazz; you will never get any European folk music or world music or fusion or crossover jazz/classical/ethnic music because you are not capable of listening to anything other than pop music.

‘So children’, says the music teacher of limited imagination, and even more limited ability, ‘let’s play the latest pop song and see how it’s just like every other pop song.’

The real tragedy is that there is some crackerjack pop music out there which, in conjunction with a wide range of all sorts of other music, could really have a profound impact on children’s musical development. Comparing, contrasting, examining a broad range of styles and genres is the life-blood of a music program. Music education is not about entertainment.

Would History be taught with the view that we will only study Australian history from 1900 -1905? That could be fun and entertaining!

Would Geography be taught with the view that we will only study mountains in Victoria? We love mountains and hate seas and plains and valleys!

Would arithmetic be taught with the view that we only really need to do addition up to ten? My children don’t like any numbers above ten!

If this Federal Government is really serious about creative Australia, really serious about education and genuinely interested in literacy and numeracy then it would put its money where its mouth was and fund music and arts education as a priority, taught properly by teachers who know something about music, teachers who are serious about music as a subject and not disc jockeys.

Parents need to know that children, who receive only pop music and nothing else, are being short-changed in a significant way.

How is it that in Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Argentina, for example, where music is studied and taught sequentially as a serious subject that there has been no deleterious impact on the literacy and numeracy results of students? In fact just the opposite: these countries excel in all fields of educational endeavour precisely because of their arts and music programs, in which pop music, by the way, plays a very minor role

Wake up Australia; we are behind the eight ball big time-but we can change it; you can change it-you can show concern-you can write to education ministers and politicians, even when they seem not to be understanding the problem they still need to hear that there is a problem and it can be fixed. Watch this space.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Principles or Principals

It’s time we started to remind people about the secret wars being waged in education against the Arts, by some school Principals (no names no least at this stage) who think that by reducing time given to the arts subjects, for example music, that children will have more time to become literate and numerate and thus score very high in NAPLAN. We don’t go to school with the exclusive idea of passing NAPLAN tests. We go to school to learn how to learn and to learn how to think. There is more to life than NAPLAN and when NAPLAN is truly dead and buried we will still remember Mozart, Beethoven, John Lennon and Leonard Cohen.

The Arts make us literate; the Arts make us numerate; the Arts inspire us to achieve things we thought unachievable; the Arts help us to think in abstraction; the Arts give every child an opportunity to think, dream, imagine, visualize, improvise, explore, evoke, suggest, imply an enormous range of emotions and ideas, and remember all Arts pertain to the condition of music.

Any school Principal who makes a decision to reduce teaching time in Arts subjects is making a decision not to educate children properly.

This type of thinking keeps Australia in the cultural backwaters of the world. Take a moment to look at the clip of Timo Klemettinen from Finland and read at the end of the clip the things that are happening in their music education system and the value they place on music education.

Circling bubbles which contain spelling mistakes is not education; it’s circling bubbles. Teaching to NAPLAN tests is not education ; it’s teaching to tests. I could learn all the chemical formulas known to mankind by heart but it wouldn’t make me a chemist.

Stand up and be counted. If music time is being taken away from your child go down to the school and demand to know why. Don’t take this behaviour lying down. It’s anti-educational, barbaric and dehumanizing to have children deprived of arts subjects. Australia has the potential to be a truly great country so let’s stop circling bubbles with spelling mistakes and start teaching children real things such as music. More later. Join the ‘Let’s Grow Up Australia’ society which promotes thinking, arts subjects and love of learning for its own sake.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A life unexamined

Time for questions; time to ask some serious curlies and I don't mean short
and curlies I mean the big questions.

Why do some people who work in music feel the need to bully, intimidate and
threaten their colleagues?

Why do people in authority feel that their authority is enhanced when they
bully, intimidate or threaten?

Why does bullying attract a sycophantic cohort of supporters who are clearly
lulled into a false sense of security, believing that the bully is their

How insecure is the bully and what makes the bully the way he/she is?

Why do bullies threaten those who take them on with vile consequences for
questioning the bully?

Was Hitler a bully? Yes, I believe so. Was Al Capone a bully? Yes, I believe

Were Hitler and Al Capone pathological liars? Yes, I believe so.

Thus, dear friends in music, why do we need bullies in our lives?

We don't. We need to stand up to them and tell them that their behaviour is
completely unacceptable.

We need to be united against the pretenders and the fakers who only care
about themselves and not about music.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

We have almost lost the joy of singing. Opera can bring it back.

In 2006, when I took on the reins of the newly established Victorian Opera, I asked myself several questions some of which were: how will this company be different from the other opera companies in this country and city; how will we be distinctive; and how will we make the company truly part of wider Australian community?

These questions are obliquely implied in Marcus Westbury’s closing remarks in Monday’s Canvas essentially dealing with Lyndon Terracini’s appointment to Opera Australia. He writes: ‘We should perhaps ask the unaskable about the cultural traditions Australians actually value and how we might best support and resource them.’

Marcus Westbury is a voice of conscience. It is fortunate for us that he is prepared to say what he says. Apart from an oblique reference to education, I believe Westbury has hit the mark. My considered view in response to Westbury, is that Victorian Opera is establishing itself as a part of the culture which Australians value by virtue of the ways in which it addresses the problems Westbury so succinctly describes.

Victorian Opera has numbers of strands within its artistic program each one of which, I believe, has an impact on changing the ways in which opera is perceived by responding to the community in fresh ways.

In 2006 I had a very inspiring conversation with Bangarra’s Stephen Page which led subsequently to his role as the director of Victorian Opera’s production of Orpheus in 2007, using aspects of indigenous culture within the production. I believe this was the first time an indigenous director had been used to direct an opera of this nature. More of this work is in the pipeline.

VO’s contribution to the creative influence within Australia is manifest in the number of Australian works it has performed and commissioned. At the end of 2010 it will have commissioned and performed five new chamber operas and one existing Australian work. The concept of commissioning new work is vital to the lifeblood of opera. Audiences respond to the new work in a variety of ways but our research tells us that audiences are happy to see new work in balance with other repertoire. Thirteen sell-out performances of Through the Looking Glass, a Victorian Opera/Malthouse Theatre collaboration tells a powerful story.

Our community outreach program involves the establishment of regional hubs in Victoria where the needs of a particular community or region are assessed, followed up by visits and support activity from Victorian Opera. We also run an event called Sing Your Own Opera at which 500 people from all over the state sing an opera. This has become a highlight of our calendar. What is the cultural significance of this event you might ask? I would respond by saying that communities are on the verge of losing the joy of singing. Schools are on the verge of losing the joy of singing. Opera is about singing. Unless we restore this concept of singing as a way to music education we can seriously think about closing opera companies within ten years.

Victorian Opera has two Youth Opera companies; one for children aged between 7 and 18 and one for 18 to 25 year-olds. Unless children experience music in the making, that is by doing, they remain forever passive and soon lose interest. This is where I take issue with Marcus Westbury. In Canvas earlier this month, he wrote about the Federal Government’s call for information which might be used to form a cultural policy, applauding the government for this action. I will also join the applause if this quest for cultural policies is under-pinned by serious education in the arts. Most people are aware that the Arts are to be included in the National Curriculum. How are they to be included? How are they to be taught? These two vital questions are the product of Westbury’s unaskable question referred to earlier. If, as far as music goes, it ends up that it is perceived as children lip-synching to the transient noise of an ephemeral pop star coming from a backing-track, then we are lost.

As far as Lyndon Terracini’s appointment to Opera Australia goes I welcome him warmly. It is refreshing to have a colleague who understands opera and who is prepared to tackle some serious issues. Victorian Opera has a special and distinctive mission. Our size enables us to be fleet of foot whilst developing the art form through strong performances, artist and audience development especially in the fields of community outreach, commissioning new work here and abroad and our education program.

Thank you Marcus Westbury for your vigilance and for keeping us honest.
I would, however, like to take you on head-to-head on education. Our education program is opera education for its own sake. If it translates into attendances in the short, medium or long-term then that is a happy result but it is not a principal aim.

In other words, children learn science for its own sake not necessarily to become scientists. But education in this country is another story for another day.

As Published in the Age on 25 November 2009

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Go for gold!

Read Marcus Westbury’s column in today’s Age(Monday, November 23rd)in the arts section where he makes comments on Lyndon Terracini’s views vis-à-vis the directions he, Lyndon, will take as the new Artistic Director of Opera Australia to which I say ‘well done Lyndon and more power to you’.

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold and as a result have found golden opportunities. Westbury is perceptive and incisive. I like it.

There are winds of change blowing and I’d like to tell you that we are part of making that change and causing some new interest in the way in which opera is perceived. By ‘we’ I mean Victorian Opera, for although my principal position at the moment is to write a blog I do have a day job which keeps me very busy, namely Music Director at Victorian Opera.

How are we contributing to cultural change? I assessed the operatic scene here in Victoria in 2005 and decided that a new company had a golden opportunity to present a variety of work rarely or previously unseen and unheard work in this part of the world; a golden opportunity to build a youth opera company as part of our education and outreach; a golden opportunity to go into venues outside the usual venues; a golden opportunity to tour to regional Victoria; a golden opportunity to include special events in our program; a golden opportunity to use talent in a new way and try some new talent and so on.

We at Victorian Opera commission a new work from an Australian composer and librettist every year and by the end of 2010 will have performed six Australian works. We have just begun a liaison with Chambermade Opera centred on the development of new work and have received an encouraging response from a huge number of composers and librettists. We now have two youth opera companies; Company X and Company Y. X is the unknown factor – young singers from the age of 7 to 18 who are interested in singing and Company Y – Why do you want to do this? - let’s find out why – a company for 18 year olds to 25 year olds.
We have had two tours to outer-urban and regional Victoria with terrific response from the punters.

We work in lots of venues and we will present our edgiest season so far next year and the punters are telling us that they like it. How do we know?
Subscriptions are up hugely; like seriously hugely.

Tomorrow night, Tuesday 24th November, I’ll go the Dandenongs a golden opportunity, and conduct a choral festival with over 300 primary-school children who will sing their own freshly composed music together with some folk songs and other material. Guess what? Lots of parents will be there! Guess what? Guess who is comparing the show? You guessed. Guess what he’ll be talking about. Golden song, golden voices and golden opportunities for parents and children

We are strongly supported by the enlightened Victorian Government and some equally enlightened and wonderful sponsors and golden patrons – all these people are gold. Go make a golden opportunity for yourself and see our website. We are making changes to the way this country perceives opera. Slowly, steadily surely and goldenly. You can shout GLORIA for opera in Victoria especially with this golden company.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Tom, Dick and Someone

Just read an article, drawn to it as I was by the headlines, in The Sydney Morning Herald about classical music by someone called Tim Dick. Headlines of this nature attract attention and can make people very angry. I was not angry because, as a wise person once said, ”when we get angry we close our eyes.” I would love to be assured that it was either Aristotle or Socrates and would happily know the author of this thought.

What I deduced from the article was that Mr Dick has had a bad experience with classical music. This can happen; most people I know who play this so-called classical music have had a bad experience somewhere, sometime, somehow with music.

Nonetheless, I’d like to invite Mr Dick and his guest, to attend, as my guests, the Sydney Sinfonia’s first Discovery concert in march 2010 in which we Discover Gustav Mahler. I want to have the chance to demonstrate that classical music has the power to change lives in a positive way. I don’t want necessarily to change Mr Dick because that presumes arrogance on my part, but I want him to know the other side of the coin.

It is good to have people such as Mr Dick out there as it helps to keep us honest and think about the way we play music. While I do not agree with a single thing he said I do defend his right to say it and I hope he will take me up on my offer.




Someone’s being paid a teacher’s salary for that clap-trap, for that outrageous, unmusical, unmitigated mind destroying rubbish. Then when I calmed down a little I thought about the possible advantages of lip-synching and came up with the idea that at least the kids had to listen to something and concentrate and possibly memorise something from which some good might have come. But it is tragic to think that this is probably not an isolated example.

I will keep saying it until the governments do something about it, but we are a musically bereft nation and until every child in this country is receiving proper music instruction from a fully-qualified music teacher we will remain forever a cultural back-water. Why do some people believe that a serious music education is too hard for children? That sort of belief is a type of cringe. We say implicitly to the child: “a serious music education is too hard for you, you poor dumb little Australian mis-fit of a child, so we’ll give you some clap-trap from an imported no-talent, lack-lustre, unmusical personage so you can lip-synch?????” Tragic beyond belief.

Cultural back-waters seem to hold little interest for Mr Garrett and there are calls from him for thoughts about a new cultural policy. Great idea and thank you Mr Garrett. However, to underpin a cultural policy we need outstanding school-based education in all cultural endeavours if the country is to become serious about these matters. I can’t imagine lip-synching is high on Mr Garrett’s agenda.