NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

A Repertoire of Catastrophic Synonyms

The impact of the pandemic on music … has been immense. COVID-19 has expanded our repertoire of catastrophic synonyms as they are now the new vocabulary. The response to the pandemic by some musicians and educators was swift, decisive and efficient while others have floundered.

By Professor David Forrest

The impact of the pandemic on music (and music education, for many musicians are also teachers) has been immense. COVID-19 has expanded our repertoire of catastrophic synonyms as they are now the new vocabulary. The response to the pandemic by some musicians and educators was swift, decisive and efficient while others have floundered.

Whilst the international opera houses, ballet companies, recording companies and individual artists have provided us with a remarkable opportunity to access and revisit their excellent performances via their archives, this does not address the issues confronting performers who are no longer able to engage with a live audience.

Musicians (and music educators) have been brutally affected by the lack of government support because of the very nature of most of their employment contracts – that is “one-off” or short term “gigs”. Even with seemingly “secure” long-term contracts, some organisations have been unable to continue to support their musicians because of income from audiences or patrons drying up. This has brought into question the ongoing viability of the pre-pandemic business models that have structured so many of our organisations, companies and institutions.

It is useful to revisit Roger Sessions’s (1950) The Musical Experience of Composer, Performer, Listener where he discusses the relationship between the composer, the performer and audience; this ecological balance requires “live” performance where the interaction is experienced. (At the time that Sessions was writing, recordings of performances had been around for many decades – however there was no thought that these would replace the live experience.)

Over the last four decades we have be able to experience the emergence of simulcasting live performances and live streaming. The audience in the performance is both real and virtual in time. They have enabled artists and companies to expand their “live” audience reach beyond the actual location. Previously these live streams were limited to subscriptions or purchase; today, many artists and arts companies are freely providing access to their repository of performances. These have offered great opportunities to remain connected with past, present and potential audiences in an attempt to maintain connection post COVID-19.

Post-COVID-19 we will be better placed to assess what … worked sufficiently well to be adopted at least in part as we return to normal concertising and teaching. But this will be no compensation for the professional, personal and fiscal losses so many of our musicians across all genres of the performance spectrum have experienced.

Whilst the international opera houses, ballet companies, recording companies and individual artists have provided us with a remarkable opportunity to access and revisit their excellent performances via their archives, this does not address the issues confronting performers who are no longer able to engage with a live audience and receive payment for their work. Whilst live streaming has gone some way in compensating for what audiences are missing, the money going back to performers is limited.

On the positive side, initiatives such as the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall and The State of Music provide some opportunities for both performers and audiences. We can buy a ticket, experience a live performance, and the performers receive some payment.

Chris Howlett and Adele Schonhardt opened the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall in March. Howlett in an interview with Angus McPherson (2020) in Limelight said “There has been a lot of publicity about the major organisations but not as much about the independent artists who live on the $160 per call lifestyle or from recital to recital fee and even less about the sound engineers, piano tuners and stage managers that have also lost their income. When you receive anywhere between $500 and $1500 for a recital, there isn’t a lot of reserve money.”

State of Music is a partnership between Michael Gudinski’s Mushroom Group and the Victorian Government. It is a series of weekly live-streamed broadcasts with interviews and live performances. The series features “exclusive artist interviews and live performances from household names and emerging acts … curated, professionally filmed and recorded by Mushroom” (Jenke, 2020).

In School Education we have had distance learning since the early 1950s with the School of the Air, and later with the development of Distance Learning schools of the various State Departments of Education. Over time there has been the transition from short-wave radio through to the Internet. Music (as a part of schooling) is available as an option for music classes and instrumental teaching. Little did we think three months ago that this provision for a relatively small number of students across the country would become the norm for this time.

In the teaching of instrumental music, since the 1990s we have seen the emergence and development of video-conferencing. This has been used to connect a teacher (usually in an institution) with a student in a remote location, and to reduce the normal associated regular travel time. At this time, schools and universities have adopted online platforms to connect students with teachers and provide some sense of regular ‘live’ contact and feedback. Although the physicality of the studio is not present the contact remains.

Post-COVID-19 we will be better placed to assess what – if anything – worked sufficiently well to be adopted at least in part as we return to normal concertising and teaching. But this will be no compensation for the professional, personal and fiscal losses so many of our musicians across all genres of the performance spectrum have experienced. Sadly, our government has focused more on sport than on the arts during this crisis to the despair not only of our musicians, but also dancers, actors, and those in other areas of artistic endeavour.

References

McPherson, A. (2020). Melbourne digital concert hall opens its doors. Limelight, 20 March. Retrieved from www.limelightmagazine.com.au/news/melbourne-digital-concert-hall-opens-its-doors

Jenke, T. (2020). Michael Gudinski & Vic Gov Announce Weekly Live Series, The State of Music. Rolling Stone. Retrieved from https://au.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/michael-gudinski-anvictorian-state-of-music-10468

Sessions, R. (1950). The Musical Experience of Composer, Performer, Listener. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.


Dr David Forrest is Professor of Music Education in the School of Art at RMIT University where he is the program manager of the MA (Arts Management). He has been a member of the National Executive of the Australian Society for Music Education since 1995. He is the editor of the Australian Journal of Music Education and the Victorian Journal of Music Education, and a member of numerous national and international editorial boards. He has published six books on doctoral education in music and arts education, as well as three books on the Russian composer and educator Dmitri Kabalevsky.

More from this issue

More from this issue

During early February 2020, Thailand was among the early countries that encountered the COVID-19 epidemic. Personal and social health protection and prevention has risen to the new social normal, wearing sanitary masks, social and physical distancing. Certainly, the field of art and design are being affected and starting to change in response to the pandemic.

For creative disciplines like fine art, it is often thought that the move to online teaching has been the biggest challenge in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since Curtin University stopped face-to-face teaching on 23 March, numerous colleagues from other disciplines in the university, as well as family acquaintances, have shared their opinion that “they can’t imagine how you could teach art online”.

The rhetoric of fighting a war against an invisible coronavirus enemy has been invoked, perhaps too blithely, by politicians. However, the parallel between global pandemics and sites of conflict are worth reflecting on, as they create an understanding of human experience in extremis.

As a creative arts institution spanning art, design, media, performance, film and music, LASALLE College of the Arts in Singapore transitioned to partial online teaching in early February 2020 before closing its campuses and going fully online by the end of March 2020. Each discipline required a calibrated way of transiting the curriculum.

We are training artists-in-the-making, and unforeseen challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic might give birth to some wonderful opportunities, despite the pressure and the rush into semi-lockdown from the top. If we were going to make this work for us, it was up to us to come up with new ideas and turn them into opportunities.

In December last year when planning this edition of NiTRO, we started out looking at Asia and the links between Australian schools of arts education and their equivalents in the region. Then the world changed. Back then the idea of disruption had a ring of optimism about it.

On Tuesday 10 March this year, I flew Qantas (QF456) from Melbourne to Sydney with colleagues to attend the opening of the 2020 Biennale of Sydney, NIRIN. We were blithely unaware of the towering cruise ship at the Overseas Passenger Terminal near the Museum of Contemporary Art as we partied hard, cheek-to-jowl, at the vernissage.