[originally published as ‘Why community counts’ in The Australian, January 2007]
Missing The West Wing three weeks in a row would normally make me grumpy, but December was different. The first Monday I was on a ridge above Victoria’s King Valley with a couple of hundred other CFA volunteers from all over the place, doing what we could (not much) to slow the progress of a large bushfire; a week later, having swapped the orange overalls for black tie, I was at the Hamer Hall for the celebration of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s centenary. The third week was the Upper Sandy Creek Primary School Christmas Concert, something of a red-letter day in our community’s social calendar.
Our little valley in north-eastern Victoria is Jeffersonian space, minus the slaves of course. There is no town or village, but the residents – a mixture of farmers, tradespeople, professionals and teachers –socialise informally and through the fire brigade, football club, church. And even people without a direct connection to the school go to the Christmas concert.
The whole student body (in 2006 there were twelve in all) takes part. Thanks to the help of a couple of volunteers from the local community, this year the kids had learned to read music well enough to sing several songs (one of which, the Sandy Creek Song, they’d written themselves) and to play a couple of numbers on massed recorders and glockenspiels. They staged a short play, a piece of collaboratively workshopped dramaturgy based loosely on Chicken Little, for which the students had made Australian animal costumes and props. It wasn’t the von Trapp family or Kings College Choir, by any means, but each of those children knew how vital their individual contribution could be and each experienced the mixture of nervous terror and joy one gets from performing.
Margaret Thatcher famously declared that there was ‘no such thing as society’, and Australian politicians duly weigh in with fatuities like ‘individual enterprise’ and ‘aspirational voter’. But an event like our little concert suggests that society is alive and well, which is extremely fortunate: ‘individual enterprise’ is of questionable value if you are trying to play a Beethoven symphony or put out thousands of hectares of burning eucalypt forest. In those situations, you have to do your best, but at the same time understand that you are part of a bigger enterprise.
Much has been published – some of it specious – about the neurological benefits of music in childhood. Simply having Mozart played at you as a child or, God knows, in utero may or may not raise the IQ, but learning to read music is comparable to learning a second language and can, in all cases but my own, improve mathematical ability. Regular practice of an instrument can only improve one’s reflexes, spatial perception and dexterity, just as sport helps keep one fit. More importantly, ensemble music, like team sport, provides a social model in which individual excellence complements and enriches one’s relationship to a larger group. If one wins, all benefit; no-one gets voted off the island.
Leaving aside talent for the moment, being in any kind of ensemble – be it an orchestra, rock band, choir or string quartet – involves several things: you have to be at rehearsals punctually, accept the interpretative decisions of the musical director (and learn how to question or challenge those decisions in an appropriate and respectful manner), maintain as high a standard of performance as possible and make sure you’re always carrying a pencil. Young musicians learn about the efficient use of time, and also about their value as ensemble members. A very few will have the ability and opportunity to sing play as soloists, but, as important, more will come to understand that being a rank and file string player or choral alto makes one part of the backbone of an ensemble. Most won’t become professionals, but will be no poorer for the experience of performing: learning how to communicate, project, create an experience for an audience can do wonders for self-esteem and confidence. Besides which, it’s fun.
Australia does pretty well by its musical institutions such the state-based symphony orchestras which federal governments including the present one have moved to place on sound financial footings; politicians and the public also understand that we need institutions to train, if I may reclaim a word serially misused by Tony Abbott, elite musicians. That has its dangers as well of course, in that promising musicians often specialise so early that they miss out on the wider pleasures of culture (in which, I hasten to add, I include sport). With that in mind, I was delighted when I rehearsed with the estimable Lyn Williams and her national youth choir Gondwana Voices in 2005, to see the kids writing poetry, painting and composing as well as singing like angels.
But I do wonder about children who go to schools other than well-resourced private institutions, or to such rare gems as Upper Sandy Creek Primary. I’m emphatically not suggesting that a rigorous musical program be made mandatory, as anything involving embarrassment or failure puts kids off music for life (my former stepfather thought that school cadets would make a man of me – how wrong was that…!). Besides, where would we find the teachers? Furthermore, of course, it is perfectly sensible to stress the need for literacy and numeracy, and by extension, a working knowledge of literature, a foreign language, civics, history, scientific method and maths. But would it do any harm to teach children to read music at the same time as we teach them to read words, to encourage them to sing or play music together as a counterbalance to the increasingly privatised experience of computer and video game? The composer Michael Tippett called music ‘the morphology of feeling’, a unique way of experiencing and knowing the world, of being human together. I don’t know how many kids from the Upper Sandy Creek Primary School will end up in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, but if they stick around they’ll almost certainly join the local fire brigade.