Things we think might be a little bit b*llsh*t

There are mutterings afoot here in Australia regarding the future of the Yarts. It’s pretty terrifying to the Australian performing artist. The first is the decimation of the Australia Council by the Senator George Brandis, who instead of creating his own little arts fiefdom with his own pocket money has decided to take it (the money) away from the AC instead – disabling the capacity of the AC to run its programs for independent artists, and schools programs, and development of shows and the list goes on. So angry I could spit.

The second is the proposed changes to one of our university’s classical voice program. InDaily’s reporter Suzie Keen reported the following on 13 May:

Adelaide University provided a statement saying it “has no intention of closing classical voice studies in the Elder Conservatorium of Music, and these rumours have no basis in fact”.

A university spokesperson said proposals for changes to the way the Conservatorium music courses are taught were still under consultation with staff, but that the bachelor of music (classical performance), including the classical voice major, would continue to be offered.

“It is proposed that some of the modes of teaching may be changed to give students exposure to national and international expertise and greater opportunities.” 

A media release issued last week by Adelaide University stated that changes to the music curriculum were planned to strengthen ties with the music industry and help students apply their skills to multiple career opportunities across different industries.

“Our new teaching and learning model will include greater crossover of skills in areas such as popular music, classical, jazz, performance, teaching, media and multimedia,” Professor Jennie Shaw, executive dean of the university’s Faculty of Arts, said in the release.

“As a result, the music curriculum will become as flexible and diverse as possible, representing the interests of students across a wide range of genres.

“Rather than being known for one specialisation such as voice, composition or violin, they will receive a portfolio of skills that are relevant to the challenges and opportunities in the industry in the 21st century.”

Right. So, what this means, in effect, is that students will be unable to specialise under the new model. Singing teachers will be “let go” and students will not be given the opportunity to develop elite skills or expertise in their chosen domain. Now, some (university heads) would argue that this is the way of the future for musicians. That in fact musicians need to show flexibility in their career and have a variety of skills in music that transcends expertise on one instrument.

That’s actually pretty true. Most musicians DO need to be flexible. They DO need a variety of skills and they DO need to prepare for a “Portfolio career” in the Yarts. All music institutions are painfully aware of this need, because we all know that carving out a living-wage performing career is difficult. Most performers are able to maintain performing careers over a range of musical styles; they perform, they teach, they create entrepreneurial opportunities for themselves through writing for Cabaret, Musical Theatre and the like. They collaborate and network with arts councils (sic) and write grant applications and play in bands and, well, they find ways to survive. Many universities and music institutions now offer courses that discuss how to make it as a portfolio musician, and most Bachelor music courses seem to offer electives that will expand the student experience across domains. In just one example, back in the deep dark 90s I arrived at Melbourne Uni just as they changed aspects of the BMus. They opened up about 30-40 credit points to study courses outside the faculty. I jumped at the chance and did some English and Drama courses. Useful and fun. Now, of course, I’d study introduction to Psychology and probably some creative writing courses, and perhaps a business module or two. However, back then it was hard to find out anything about the Arts courses so I just took what looked most like the career I was then trying to build.

However. And you knew there was always going to be a however. Without high levels of expertise in at least one instrument all you are going to get are bad musicians without the level of skill required to do anything more than busk. And that’s the sorry truth. So, really, what Adelaide Uni are saying is “we don’t want to support the expensive one-to-one teaching approach characteristic of most conservatoires and which has a track record of success over the last – say – 800 years (I’m lumping in Apprenticeships and European guilds in that model for all their strengths and weaknesses), so we’re pretending that a breadth degree will be just as good, and that students will somehow through an amazing osmosis-like development get the expert training they need.” Badow.

It will not happen. What you will get will be poorly trained musicians with poor skills across a range of instruments. Classical singers will not have language or stage craft skills, therefore will be unable to compete in the market IN ANY WAY. Here’s a thought. Without any – ANY – empirical evidence that what Adelaide Uni is doing will be beneficial for classical singers, I offer some anecdotes of my own as evidence to the contrary.

Kate Miller-Heidke. She is one of Australia’s leading women performers, with a successful career spanning more than 10 years (she’s only 30ish). Can sing opera really really well, but is also an award winning song writer and performer across a range of genres. She trained at Qld Con in classical voice. Huh. Here’s the thing. When she graduated, she chose not to sing opera. She chose to pursue a highly successful career in pop. She has written a truckload of albums, won a truckload of awards, was the world’s best song-writer one year, and has appeared on TV innumerable times singing everything from a totally crazy rendition of Psycho Killer to her own amazing work. And then something happened. Now she is singing Opera again. At the Met, no less. She would not have had this amazing career without the thorough training she received from one of our finest Conservatoires. One-to-one classical voice lessons set her up to be expert in that field, WHICH THEN TRANSLATED TO EVERYTHING SHE SUBSEQUENTLY DID.

Training for expertise in one thing does not automatically mean you are going to be bad at everything else. What it means, more likely, is that you are going to have the know how to develop expertise across a raft of skills WHEN AND IF THEY ARE REQUIRED. Well, ok, I was never going to be any good at Maths, but my own training in Classical voice enabled me to apply the LEVEL of skill required to master just about anything else I needed in my career, including teaching, singing pop and jazz, and writing. The discipline I developed in my vocal training has held me in great stead for my PhD studies (that old thing about excellence etc). Developing elite skills in one thing just means that I’m elite at that one thing, not that I’m unable to be good at anything else.

I totally get that musicians need to be flexible and have a range of skills across a range of domains. We are already doing this, people. Let’s look at Babushka Cabaret, another anecdotal example. I saw them just recently and was blown away by this Brisbane-based group’s skill, flexibility and talent. The women performing all trained as classical voice specialists. Here is a bio of this fabulous group, which I found on Pozible http://www.pozible.com/project/4771;

About Babushka

Babushka was born in 2011 when four of Brisbane’s most vivacious and dangerously different divas bonded over a shared case of Soprano Identity Crisis Syndrome at the Queensland Conservatorium. Premiering their wares as a cabaret four-piece at Queensland’s own Woodford Folk Festival, these quirky young sopranos created the collective to indulge their love of operatic prima donnas (mostly themselves) and cabaret femme fatales. Pushing the boundaries of traditional opera through their unique crossover arrangements, mash-ups and musical sketches, the girls have won the hearts of classical music buffs and indie music nerds alike. Their repertoire explores the spectrum of theatrical music from full-blown operatic arias, cabaret tearjerkers and pop gems set to luscious 4-part harmony. 
As individuals, the girls have performed with Opera Queensland, OzOpera, Alpha Crucis Ensemble (The Southern Cross Soloists II), The Sounding Out Collective, Oscar Theatre Company, The Qld Conservatorium Opera Department, ChiChi Delux, The National Youth Choir of Australia and more.

The prevailing societal culture of pop and rock means that these women already know that stuff. They hear it every day. They probably sing it in the shower. But their training in elite opera styles enabled this group to develop an extremely high level of skill in their cabaret endeavour. Their conservatoire training, which included everything from stage craft to languages to vocal pedagogy to music theory, was in-depth. Breadth was a by-product of their own desire to break out of the mold. So their amazing vocal arrangements of pop tunes and classical standards, set within a cabaret formula, was borne of their elite training.

Do I have to give more examples of successful “cross-over” artists in the absence of ANY research that indicates what Adelaide Uni is doing there will have a POSITIVE effect on Australian artists? There is no evidence that this is a great move by Adelaide. Call it out for what it is: lack of money to support this conservatoire and its attempts to maintain excellence in a time of increasing austerity about the Yarts. Don’t attempt to placate us with nonsense about breadth and crossover skill. And there it is, folks. Things we think might be a little bit bullshit.

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