This week I started a new music program. New school. New teachers. New kids. New hall.
It’s a school in western Sydney, and there’s funding to run a music program out there for three years. I’m hugely excited about it, and very hopeful.
I walked in to teach this week in a hall with no air-conditioning. So it’s going to be steamy for a while. And freezing for some of the year too. But that, I think, will be the hardest part. Don’t get me wrong, I have some tricky characters there. Refugees. Kids doing it seriously tough. But there seems to be a really supportive staff, and a hugely supportive principal and assistant principal.
After all these years of teaching the types of kids I do, it’s now easy for me to clock the trickier ones. And I’ve chosen to be pretty hands-on this term, getting the kids to engage. So lots of playing. Lots of noise-making. And today I watched some serious grinning happening.
You know when you see a kid smile with their whole body? Not just their face, but their whole body changes? I got that. A number of times. I saw shy little people look at me sideways and smile. I watched some ‘busy’ boys calm down drumming. And this is week one.
It’s so important, you know. This music thing. Especially for kids doing it tough. It truly does change them.
Like many people in NSW, I love the south coast. It’s a place of wild beauty – bushland going down to the beach. Beautiful beaches. Clear, cold water. And now it’s burning. It’s so dry – and now it’s devastated. And my heart is breaking.
I was down there, and got caught up in the fires that happened over the New Year period. I’m not going to write about climate change, or the drought, or the fact that most of the politicians in power have thought that it was okay to leave the country. My place is not to change anyone’s mind here. Or even to have a political rant. I’m happy to do that with you over a glass of something.
But this happened to me…. I was in a house. I was safe whilst the wind blew in a particular way. I was with people I loved. I had enough to drink and eat. And I had my cello. I felt hugely uncomfortable and anxious. And what did I do? I sat and played. And I’ve been talking to musician friends – they did the same thing. My former cello teacher in London brought in the new decade by playing all the Bach suites. His way of starting the new decade (in the best possible way, I think!).
So I sat and played. I felt better. I was asked to leave the door open. People in the house listened. People dropped in and listened.
And through all this craziness, music calmed.
So here’s a thought. So far, economics have ruled decision-making. It’s what has made people vote a certain way. It’s the reasons we’ve been told by the people who run the country that that’s how things are going to happen. But when things really get bad, that’s not what people turn to. They turn to music, to art. To the things created by people who are paid badly, who are undervalued. Who don’t even have a minister in the portfolio reshuffle.
Worth thinking about?
I sigh. I shake my head. I try not to wail.
But it’s hardly surprising.
I’m not sure if you know, but this thing has happened. This is a direct quote from Limelight magazine. The writer says it so clearly, so I’ll quote Mr McPherson. “The Australian arts world is reacting with fury to the news that the arts have been demoted in Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s restructuring of the public service announced yesterday. The Arts, already an addendum to the Department of Communications and the Arts, will be merged along with the rest of the department into a new one with the unwieldy title of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications.”
That’s right. There is no longer a department with ‘Arts’ in the title. I suppose that right now, with NSW burning (and no-one meant to relate this to climate change), water restrictions being upped (but it’s still okay to fill your pool up) and Christmas on the way (and all the craziness that goes with it), that it’s easy to overlook this.
But it feels awful. I work in the arts, and this is a way that the Government, the mostly-men leading this country is subtlety saying ‘Umm… Rachel? The thing you do? Along with your friends? Yeh – that thing. It doesn’t actually matter. Not a bit to us. You got a problem with that? Too bad. No minister to complain to.”
It just makes things harder. Harder to succeed. Harder to feel valued. The article in Limelight (worth a read, you know) starts the discussion we need to have. In the arts industry, artists bring in a lot of money to the economy. And we’re struggling. We’re struggling to pay our bills and our taxes. We’re struggling to stay positive. We’re struggling to keep the black dog from consuming us. We’re working incredibly hard. I can’t remember when I last had a full day off.
And who cares? Well, it seems the government has washed its hands of us. Not that I think Morrison and his mates would approve of me anyway. I sure as hell don’t agree with what they are doing.
But it’s still a slap in the face.
A little while ago I had a really interesting conversation with a teacher-friend who I really respect. They were telling me about a new way of thinking by educators to do with, well, struggling. Struggling with problems.
It’s been found that children learn better, and also gain more satisfaction within themselves when they have failed at something – and then achieve it. For example, doing a maths problem and getting it right the first time gives very little feeling of satisfaction. But doing a problem and really having to puzzle at it, to attempt and fail, and fail again, and fail some more – and then get it right gives an enormous feeling of satisfaction. And so teachers are now focusing on the struggle. On the failing. And then the succeeding.
This got me thinking.
First, I smiled as I realised this happens in every music lesson I teach. I can see it in a drum lesson. I’ll give the class a group of patterns, and watch children try and stuff it up. Try again, and make a different mistake. And it may take a dozen goes, or a dozen lessons to get it right. And then I see the kid’s face as they succeed. They beam. They light up. And interestingly, it’s not necessarily the bright ones that get it right the quickest either – as drumming involves being ‘in your body’, and co-ordination, and aural skills – and then perhaps some smarts. But in that order.
Second, I was sad for the kids I see who aren’t confident enough to start the process. The try-and-fail loop that needs to happen. And it made me wonder about how I could make things easier for the kids who are in this boat to feel they can try this in a lesson I’m giving.
Third, it made me realise that as an adult, very few of us actually do this ourselves. If we can’t do something the first time, we generally stop it. Or stop it after a while. And yet we expect kids to do it all the time.
All good thinks to think, I think. And now, hopefully, you’re thinking them too.
A number of people have spoken to me about the episode of ABC’s Q&A talking about the power of music. I was offered a place in the audience, in case I wanted to ask a question. I have also had a few people talk to me about the essay in this month’s ‘The Monthly’ about the diminishing support for the arts in Australia. It’s grim reading.
I just don’t have the energy to jump up and down about this any more. Don’t get me wrong – I agree with it all. Music education SHOULD BE IN EVERY SCHOOL. Good music education. Taught properly. The science is in. IT CHANGES PEOPLE. (Yes – I am shouting. Well, raising my voice.) And there should be more support for artists in the country. Absolutely. The statistics are in. Arts activity contributed $111 billion to the economy (in 2016-7, but it’s not really changed.). The Arts alone brought in $4.6 billion. And cultural spending is 0.5 per cent of the budget ($2.6 billion. Subsidies to the fossil fuel economy came to $29 billion. Just sayin’.).
Oh, I can be outraged. It makes me angry if I think about it. But I really have two options. I can work in a different sector. I’m not prepared to do that. Or I can do something about it. And I don’t have the tact or diplomacy to be a lobbyist. So I’ll do the next thing – I’ll educate. Children. Audiences. Myself. And I’ll try and infect as many people I can with the love of music so that they support it.
However this makes me tired. Too tired to jump up and down. Too busy. Busy actually doing stuff. But if anyone reading this wants to jump up and down for me, please do.