Making music accessible in three not-so-easy steps

This piece first appeared in the January 2019 issue of Limelight magazine.

I spend two weeks of every January on the Mornington Peninsula, soaking up sunshine, wine and music.

And not necessarily in that order. The summer music festival spreads across many coastal towns and in a variety of intimate venues, and is a highlight of my year.

Overlooking rows of grapevines towards tall trees and blue skies
Moorooduc Estate

Over the past four days, I have heard baroque in a barrel room, Ravel overlooking rows of grapevines, Telemann in a tasting room and Mozart in a Mornington church. The combination of the classical with the casual is distinctly Australian, and an experience I want the world to share. But such festivals are not within the financial grasp of every one. The question ‘Did I have $65 of fun? $75 of fun? $140 of food and fun?’ is one I find it difficult to answer.

Looking around the audience at these events, I see a sea of tasteful linen, gold jewellery and silver hair.

Not for the first time, it strikes me that performances such as these – intimate, informal and impeccably well-credentialled – are largely beyond the means of the young. I worry about the future of funding such events, after the silvertails have moved on to that final resort in the sky. To retain the quality of the experience, ticket prices must reflect the signature small venues and world-class musicians to which festival goers are accustomed. More importantly, they need to attract the next generation and the one after that.

Back in 2016, I took the opportunity to haul my twenty-something muso son along to Richard Gill’s ‘Ears Wide Open’ series at the Melbourne Recital Centre. It was my son’s first taste of live professional classical music, and he sat perched on the edge of his seat the entire hour, absorbing the older man’s knowledge by a kind of kindred-spirit osmosis.

Richard Gill and orchestra standing on stage in front of an audience

Gill de-constructed parts of Haydn’s Drumroll Symphony then put it together again. He de-mystified the music and made it accessible to an absolute beginner like my boy, spurring him to ask me to take him to the full production at Hamer Hall the following month.

Richard Gill is without question the most inspiring educator I have ever witnessed.

‘In years to come, we will be able to say we were privileged to hear Richard Gill speak’, I told my son. Sadly, the world lost Richard Gill only two years later. His death in October last year cut off a conduit between classical music and the common man. It left a huge hole in the Australian music education landscape. It is difficult to imagine how it can be filled. This is what I have come up with so far:

  1. Include music as a core subject in primary schools: The ABC three-part series ‘Don’t Stop the Music’ shows the positive effects on primary school age children of learning an instrument; not just on their academic performance, but on their social skills and family lives.
  2. Make music fun: Brisbane-based indie acrobatic troupe Circa manages to do this to hilarious effect in Wolfgang’s Magical Musical Circus currently showing in Sydney before taking it to New Zealand in March. The show brings classical music to both children and adults using Mozart himself as clownish narrator.
  3. Find another Richard Gill: This will be the hardest part of all. 
Young woman conducting an orchestra and smiling
Tianyi Lu

When Gill became too ill to present Ears Wide Open 3 in October last year, the MSO’s assistant conductor Tianyi Lu stepped in as replacement. I’ve read about her enthusiasm, her stage presence and the musical maturity that belies her years. In one interview, she was asked to name ways to live one’s musical life. Her words – along with Richard Gill’s legacy – give me hope for our musical future. Our policy makers and educators would do well to heed them.

Let your love for music and compassion for people guide you. Open your ears, open your mind and most importantly, open your heart.

2 thoughts on “Making music accessible in three not-so-easy steps

  1. Well said, Elizabeth–as usual, when it’s music you are talking about. Keep helping us appreciate what we love, and what we might come to love.

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