Elder Conservatorium: change of culture

The Elder Conservatorium of Music is set for what could be the biggest changes in its 132-year history.

Starting next year, it will begin a transition away from the traditional conservatorium model of specialist music training towards a new ‘portfolio’ based curriculum that it says will better equip young musicians for the 21st century. Among the sweeping changes proposed, staff will be expected to teach across at least two areas of expertise, not one as formerly, and industry partners such as State Opera of SA and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra will share in significant parts of teaching. It was a public relations foul-up to begin with. An internal memo to staff circulated on social media sparking panic. It outlined a planned major shake-up of the Conservatorium that included the axing of its only two permanent classical voice teachers. The University’s pioneering Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM) also looked to be under serious threat. Students organised a silent protest outside Elder Hall and a rally in support of CASM, while more than 3,600 people signed an online petition, Don’t Abolish Classical Voice Performance at the Elder Conservatorium of Music. Professor Jennie Shaw, Executive Dean of the University’s Faculty of Arts, is architect of the proposed changes to the Elder Conservatorium, and she spoke candidly about harsh realities the Con presently faces and why change is needed. An oboist and musicologist by background, Shaw says young musicians today need a much larger toolkit to make it professionally in music. “Criticism has been that our graduates come out doing one thing extremely well but not so well for many other things. That’s fine if they are violinists going into a symphony orchestra, but if you think what makes a 21st century musician, you need to have business skills, know how to run your own studio and lots more. Most will need these things.” Consequently, “all staff will need to model that kind of approach” in their teaching, she says. “It is not being ridiculous and asking a jazz musician, for example, to teach classical. But if you teach flute, you might also teach ensemble; or if you teach guitar, you might also teach pedagogy. A lot of the staff are already doing that and are comfortable about it. Others refuse to do it or don’t see it as their job. It is about changing the Conservatorium’s culture, which has been very inward looking.” The bad news is big job losses. “We need to lose six positions, the reason being purely financial,” says Shaw. On top of a historical debt that runs at between two and three million dollars annually, the Elder Conservatorium last year lost a State Government funding stream that paid for its now discontinued VET courses. “We were left with one option, and with already depleted numbers across the board, including no violin teacher or conducting position, it means we couldn’t run an orchestra,” she says. “The best we could be is a university music school department. I’m not prepared to do that. It then needed us to sit down and ask where are our areas of growth are, and where do the six positions go. That’s tough stuff.” The upside is that the Con will be able to appoint much needed violin and guitar teaching positions. “We don’t have a violin teacher on staff, which seems ridiculous to me,” she says. “If we put in a fantastic violin teacher, we may have 20 spots for [violin] students. This and classical guitar are two areas of growth”. Shaw confirms that for classical voice students, “there will be changes but not to one-to-one teaching”. How that is possible with no classical voice teaching position is the question, but a partnership with State Opera is what she hopes. “Classical voice was one of the big ones” in consulting with staff, she says. “Students come out of our degrees and are about three years off having a career. It is not about their voices maturing, but about language and diction; we only give them one hour per week on that. If we have a classical voice program linked in with State Opera, they could be offered far more one-to-one tuition through involvement with visiting State Opera artists. We are in discussions on that because we can both see we can be much stronger working together.” Shaw affirms that for currently enrolled classical voice students, “we’ll have at least what we have now but better”. A similar link with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra would allow a conductor training course to be created, she says. CASM won’t disappear as feared but will undergo its biggest overhaul since Catherine Ellis founded the centre in 1972. Four of five staff will go, says Shaw: “With five staff for 30 students and a completion rate of 10 percent, we can’t keep this going. But CASM will stay as CASM. We are trying to go back to Cath Ellis’s vision and will appoint a professor or associate professor with experience in Aboriginal music. No longer can a non-Indigenous person learn didjeridu there for instance. They teach Western pop music and their teaching duplicates totally what’s taught elsewhere. The proposal to change came from within the Indigenous community, although some are saying differently. It is not an effort to close it down or merge anything.” A proposed new administrative structure will provide support for Aboriginal language and linguistics and CASM. “It makes these units stronger to compete for grants but doesn’t affect their programs,” Shaw says, although she does concede the parties involved “all had reservations” about it. The new structure, she suggests, could have a rotating director like the University’s J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice. If accepted, most of the changes being considered will be implemented in 2017. Graham Strahle is a Visiting Research Fellow with the University of Adelaide and occasional lecturer at the Elder Conservatorium

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