December 15th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The Christ child: a life lived for the whole world

WATER RESOURCES Murray-Darling management delivers the worst of both worlds

CANBERRA OBSERVED Libs fish around for explanations

ASIAN AFFAIRS Taiwanese agree to stick with nuclear power


VICTORIAN ELECTION Coalition collapse

ECONOMICS AND SOCIETY Mondragon Corporation: humanity at work

BREXIT December 12: D-Day for Britain's EU vote

EUTHANASIA WA Government ignores objections and lessons

TAIWAN Referendum stems homosexual tide

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Free trade and the WTO in the Trump era

MUSIC Teacher teachers: The jarring note in music courses

CLASSIC CINEMA The Adventures of Robin Hood: The one and only

BOOK REVIEW A triumph of determination

BOOK REVIEW An escape from futility and addiction



HIGHER EDUCATION Massification: it's the name of the game

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Teacher teachers: The jarring note in music courses

by David James

News Weekly, December 15, 2018

There is a plenitude of tertiary jazz music courses in Australia, which, on the face of it, is an effective way to improve the music “industry” in Australia. But it is far from clear why they exist. Are they there for the benefit of the teachers, who get a good living from it, or for the students, who mostly will not?

There is little doubt that having so many jazz schools has dramatically raised the technical standards of musicians in Australia. This is hardly surprising, given that it provides a forum for intense practice and instruction. Up until about the 1990s, such tutelage was not common. Musicians learned their craft on the bandstand, or in the studio.

They also learned how to make money. Bands could do well because venues, especially pubs, had more of a monopoly than they do now over the supply of alcohol, so they were much more profitable. That meant they could afford to pay musicians well.

Studio musicians did even better. Before the advent of synthesizers, and then computerised music technology, the sound tracks of television advertising had to be produced by real musicians. That was extremely lucrative. Those who were called in regularly to do such work became well off.

The other area where musicians could make a good living was the “pits”: playing for musical theatre, which is the only area that has survived in a commercial sense. There is now very little studio work, and bands struggle to get paid anything at live venues, let alone make a good living.

Faced with the drying up of well-paid work in the 1980s, some, often well-known, musicians turned to university teaching as a way to earn a living, which was sensible enough. But in doing so they started something of a vicious cycle. It has resulted in an oversupply of musicians wanting to get work, and, when they cannot, they turn to teaching to make a living.

This in turn only adds to the oversupply – and eventually more teaching. Needless to say, venue owners have no trouble exploiting the situation for their own ends.

Who pays the piper ...

It is not just the oversupply; the problem is the signals it sends. When education dominates, then inevitably academic legitimacy becomes the first priority. Musicians who are coming out of the institutions have a tendency to focus on what other musicians, or music teachers, admire rather than what might affect audiences. It has the effect of making them turn inwards; to look to peers or teachers for their inspiration.

This is not a recipe for developing good commercial enterprises. In the end, the only way to thrive in a business sense is to understand what the customers want. Even if you do not like it much, you have to give it to them. This writer can remember often playing in venues in which punters requested two particular songs associated with my instrument, the flute. I intensely disliked both of them, but I always played them because that is what they wanted and because it was professional. If people were paying you to play, you gave them what they asked.

The only way to have an understanding of such, often confronting, realities – any notion that playing music live in commercial contexts is just “fun” is quickly dispelled for those who have actually done it – is to perform in a properly remunerated environment. It is not something that can be learned in a course.

There is another, contrary, signal that tertiary courses send – that the only way to be “serious” about music is to see it as a profession, even if it will probably remain elusive. Usually, in countries that have thriving musical cultures, music is a community activity. It is where the richness comes from. The music of Cuba, for example, is rhythmically and harmonically extraordinary, and it is performed communally. The origin of jazz, in New Orleans, was wonderfully swinging street music, which still goes on.

It might seem a contradiction, but commercially rewarded music and robust community music go well together. What kills commercial music is the decision by audiences that they will not pay for it. This is a communal decision; it reflects collective values. In Australia, the collective value is that live music is worth nothing or very little, because they are not prepared to pay for it.

A culture that values music in a communal sense is more likely to be prepared to pay for it at venues. Universities, sadly, are far removed from that. All they will tend to produce is yet more teachers and yet more students.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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