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  • Graham Abbott

"We teach music because it is unique and good."

Over the weekend of 1-3 April, 2022 I had the privilege of being involved in the inaugural Richard Gill Memorial Festival of Strings in Melbourne. This brought together senior string ensembles from four of Melbourne's premier private schools. In addition to the host school, Camberwell Grammar, the other schools involved were PLC Melbourne, Melbourne Girls' Grammar, and Scotch College.


Regarded by many as Australia's premier music educator, Richard Gill (1941-2018) was a passionate advocate for the right for all Australian children to receive a sound musical education. He was a gifted communicator, conductor and administrator and used his considerable public profile to demystify music for ordinary people and promote the need for universal music education. He inspired generations of musicians, including me. I count myself immensely privileged to have known Richard since I was 16, to have been taught by him at school and in my tertiary studies, and to have counted him as a friend and mentor in my adult life. This festival was designed to promote Richard's memory and his message, and the heading I've chosen for this article is one of Richard's famous quotes.


Richard Gill, during a TED Talk (2011)

In the final concert on Sunday the four ensembles played separately (and beautifully) to start with. I was only involved in conducting the final item, in which all four orchestras combined to make a massive ensemble of around 100 string players. We played a masterful arrangement for strings (by Lee Bradshaw) of the first movement of Beethoven's fifth symphony. The rehearsals and performance were thrilling from the very first downbeat.


During the concert there were two speeches. Maureen Gill, Richard's wife, was present and she spoke beautifully about Richard's life and work. She was introduced by Ben Bishop, Director of Music at Camberwell Grammar. As I stood backstage listening to their speeches I was so impressed with what they both had to say. With Ben's permission, I have devoted this post to sharing his words on this occasion. It's a message Richard would have wholeheartedly endorsed, and one which - sadly - still needs to be proclaimed from the rooftops here in Australia.


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Ben Bishop's speech:


“This school is not a good example of music education in Australia”. These were Richard’s words to us when he stood on this platform in 2016. From what we have heard today, I would extend these words to also cover Scotch College, Melbourne Girls’ Grammar and PLC.

These schools are not good examples of music education in Australia.


The reason that Richard told us our school is not a good example of music education in Australia is that music education, in many schools is simply non-existent, or very, very poor.


We have been witness to some brilliant musicianship today, and I would like to borrow some more of Richard’s words when I say to these hard working young string players, “Well done. That would be good anywhere”. There are only two reasons these young musicians can do what they just did:


1. They had the opportunity to learn under excellent teachers;

2. They practiced under the guidance of excellent teachers.


There is a dire shortage of good music teachers in this country, and it is being driven by poor to non-existent music education in primary schools. It is simply not fair or reasonable in any way that some children have access to basic music education and others don’t. We are privileged here and with our great privilege comes a great responsibility. All of us here, in this room have been witness to the benefits of music education; not just through some lovely soundwaves this afternoon, but through the transformation that it has brought in the lives of our students and the culture of our communities. I can guarantee that many, if not all the top academic achievers - and the loveliest kids - in of all four schools have just performed on stage today. I know that, anecdotally, the list of top scholars is always a subset of the orchestra or choir, and any music teacher in the world will tell you the same.


But now I can make that statement as fact: years of scientific research have conclusively proven that active participation in music improves neurological function, focus and learning. In her book The Music Advantage Dr Anita Collins has collated a huge number of scientific studies and unpacked specifically how music learning supercharges the developing brain while simultaneously increasing a child’s wellbeing, measured by social and academic outcomes, almost regardless of economic circumstances. The idea of cutting back on musical activities to create better academic or social outcomes is completely counter-intuitive. It’s ridiculous. It’s like cutting back on fitness training to have more time to focus on racing in the 200 metres. Or, quitting any sort of right arm strength work and just focus on getting better at tennis. Sadly, this kind of argument is what music teachers hear more often than not in prestigious independent schools like ours, and I would like to take this opportunity to say that we are not trying to create the next MSO, we are actually trying to create the next wave of great thinkers, doctors, leaders, scientists and teachers, because the mind that can work with music simply works better. Music teachers have known this for ever, but now research has proved this time and again as a neurological fact.


In contrast it has also been proven that our ability to focus, think deeply, and have empathy for others is severely diminishing in our species with the advent of technology. Tech giants such as Google, Apple and Meta are actively working to continually distract us into our devices and keep us staring at those little screens for longer. The more we stare into our phones, the more money they make. Even when we are socializing, working or even exercising, our focus is easily taken by a notification, message, email, text or call. How many of you have checked your phones during this concert… or while I’ve been talking? (I know my words are nowhere near as enticing as knowing that you got another comment or like on picture your posted of your child heading to the concert today).


Actually, it’s not your fault. Your brain is hard-wired to be enticed by that little buzz in your pocket, and those little buzzes are eroding our ability to connect and think as a species. My point here is that music is a blissful haven of mindfulness, and it may be the only time in our day we get to be truly and 100% present. While these students were playing music in rehearsals and today on stage, the number of tech-driven interruptions to these young people’s minds was exactly zero, and this is a rare, almost impossible occurrence for a human anywhere in 2022. So not only were their minds engaged, but their complete focus was too, and there are exactly zero other activities that could have achieved this. Deep focus, full engagement and real connectedness are getting harder and harder, but music by its very nature gives us all of these things in spades.


And here’s the thing: It’s accessible to everyone, through singing. There is absolutely no reason why every child in Australia couldn't access these great benefits as these students have, except that as a society we have chosen to prioritize other things. We, in this room, have the resources, education, voice and responsibility to carry this message forward and outward, and we have seen the benefits that so many have missed out on, completely unnecessarily, and often because the decision makers in education are driving us away from music, the single activity that adds the most value to learning.


Now that Richard can’t voice these things himself, it’s up to all of us to carry on his excellent work. I feel that Richard would also point out that to learn music simply for the purpose of increasing academic results is a ridiculous concept; music in itself is the means and the ends. And it is the only thing we can study that is, in itself, so complete. I think he would say something like, “We should play music, not for academic advantage or because it’s the next wave in mindfulness. We should play music because music is good.”


I haven’t done the memory of Richard justice today. I will only do that when I also spend a lifetime advocating music education as a responsibility for educators, a right for children and a reward for the future generations. It is my great honor to introduce Richard’s wife, Maureen Gill, who we are so happy to host here today.


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Further reading:


Richard Gill (Wikipedia article) here


Music holds key to providing a quality education system (Article by Richard Gill, Sydney Morning Herald, 12 August 2013) here


Ben Bishop, Director of Music, Camberwell Grammar School

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