Some further thoughts on music and Australia’s education systems

A couple of weeks ago Canberra had a visit from the Ichijo Senior High School band, from Nara, Japan. Nara is the ancient capital of Japan, and the two cities signed a sister-city agreement in 1993, so Canberra’s centenary year is also the 20th anniversary of the signing of the agreement. I was one of the signers, and have visited Nara on a number of occasions, so the visit of the band was a reminder of my first visit to Nara, and of the virtue of sister-city agreements.

But the band would also feature in The Musical Offering, an initiative to provide at least one free musical event in Canberra every day throughout the Centenary year, about which I wrote at the beginning of the year. At the present count we have done about 140 such events so far, and the average is 1.5 events a day. The Ichijo school band would be playing with two other bands, the Senior School Band of the ACT and the Canberra City Band, one of the longest-lived musical organisations in the city. Our senior school band played first, and they were very good. The City Band were even better, and played some fine and, to me, unfamiliar music as well.

The Nara band numbered 92, and had more clarinets than I’d ever seen in one place. They were almost all girls (about which more later), and they were astonishingly good. Not only did they play beautifully, and seemed to have a dozen or so superb soloists, but much of their work was choreographed. The whole clarinet section would stand and turn toward the audience, swaying and stepping in time to the music — then sit down, all at the same time.Two soloists would come to the front and do their thing, then bow — at exactly the same time.

The audience cheered and cheered. Everything the band did was exemplary. It looked like a professional band, not one from a high school. I realised that I had seen something like this before, and that was at the University of Michigan, nearly forty years ago. There the U of M marching band numbered in the small hundreds, and played at half-time in the football stadium (which seated, when full, 101,001 people). It had a complicated set of routines where marching and playing and producing a scene on the football pitch was all part of its act. Its players were drawn largely from the Graduate School of Music. The Nara band had certainly picked up some American pizazz. Above all, its players were accomplished musicians. Were our players jealous? Not a bit of it. They enjoyed it all just as much as the rest of the audience.

How could the Nara kids be that good? I asked one of the organisers, Naida Blackley, herself the conductor of the Senior School Band, and a visitor to Nara with that band in the past. It turns out that in Nara the students can choose a club for after-school activities, but only one club. And club activities last for two hours, each weekday. That’s ten hours. The boys tend to choose sporting clubs, like baseball and soccer. The girls like the band. Ten hours a week of musical tuition and practice, for forty weeks in the year, for say three years, gives you 1200 hours of musical training. You can get pretty good at the clarinet with that amount of experience.

We have nothing like that in our school systems. As it happens, Naida Blackley runs an instrumental music program for the schools in Canberra, and has 3,000 instruments to provide for our budding musicians. Music in the ACT is everywhere, and if it were not we would find it hard to provide the free musical event every day for the Centenary. But not at two hours a day, every weekday after school.

Should we try to emulate what is done in Nara? No, is my answer. Our systems are designed to turn out rather well-rounded young people who have learned what they are good at. Few of them will have the amount of training in anything that the Nara kids can benefit from, but they will have a wider range. I am reminded of a remark by my school-teacher father, when I was suggesting that there ought to be this or that added to the curriculum, ‘There are only so many hours in the school day. If you want something added in, you need to think of what to take out.’

We could experiment with other ways of doing things, like having a ‘music high school’ that talented kids could go to, and learn much of their other education through its relationships with music, just as there could be ‘language high schools’ and ‘science high schools’. I’d like to see such initiatives.

But while one of my first reactions, on hearing the sheer musical proficiency of the Ichijo kids, was to ask myself ‘Why can’t we do that?’, I remembered the Stephen Dinham lecture that I went to, and also wrote about here. No education system can do everything, and ours is a good one, that works well for Australia. We are not in some kind of Olympic competition to see which country has the best education system.

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