NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Making Music Work in and beyond 2020

COVID-19 has had a profound impact on how music is taught and practised, not least because the reliance of so many musical activities on physical proximity has been turned on its head. With virtual lessons and ensembles becoming the norm, the move to online has challenged music educators to consider how we might do things differently in the future.

By Vanessa Tomlinson, Ruth Bridgstock, Brydie-Leigh Bartleet and Dawn Bennett

COVID-19 has had a profound impact on how music is taught and practised, not least because the reliance of so many musical activities on physical proximity has been turned on its head. With virtual lessons and ensembles becoming the norm, the move to online has challenged music educators to consider how we might do things differently in the future. This includes what we want to teach, who we want to have access to education, and for which careers we might be preparing students.

A key question is whether tertiary music students are getting the education they need in order to survive and build sustainable careers in a post-COVID world.

The three-year Making Music Work (MMW) study examined the life and work experiences of over 600 Australian musicians (Bartleet, et. al., 2020). The report shares how musicians make their portfolio careers “work” – that is, how they build and sustain their careers. We also asked about their education and work histories, their motivations and feelings about music and work, and their experiences of being a musician in Australia. The research was conducted prior to COVID-19, and yet the findings point to some important considerations for music learning and teaching practice within and beyond the pandemic, and perhaps also a roadmap of sorts for music education into the future.

Our research affirmed the centrality of tertiary music education to musicians’ careers. In line with previous research, MMW found that around 90% of musicians have completed post-secondary education, with 70% holding a tertiary degree. Tertiary music education is therefore an important opportunity to prepare students for working lives that are likely to unfold through a self-driven ‘portfolio’ of overlapping music and non-music roles.

Music teachers have arguably been more in contact with their students, more focussed on sound, posture and well-being as students and teachers navigate this new online learning environment.

At the time of the survey, half the musicians in our study held two or more jobs, most commonly on a self-employment basis. There were 648 different job roles undertaken by musicians overall, with common job titles including instrumental musician (25% of all jobs) and private music teacher (10% of all jobs), composer, sound technician, community arts worker, journalist and librarian.

In our report, we argue that “to engage across a variety of markets, genres and performance sites, including in online, digital, community and educational settings, Australian musicians need diverse and agile skill sets” (Bartleet, et. al., 2020, p. 1). A key question is whether tertiary music students are getting the education they need in order to survive and build sustainable careers in a post-COVID world.

The MMW study makes nine recommendations, of which three relate directly to the role of tertiary education institutions. Recommendation 3 challenges institutions to take on board evidence for curriculum reform to integrate career development learning, small business management and more inclusive notions of “success” in music. In recent years, some institutions have led the way with innovative and exemplary practice in this space, including the My Life as a Musician suite of core courses at Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University. Taking this a step further, deepening learning partnerships with industry, including mentoring by professional portfolio musicians, might enhance on-campus offerings with real world experiences. Mirroring the lifelong learning journey of the portfolio musician, the report argues that career development learning should be at the centre of all music courses such that all music graduates know how to learn and how to negotiate the complex labour market.

Recommendation 4 states that tertiary educational institutions, among others, should be part of a collective action with regard to the mental and physical health conditions among Australia’s music workforce. Interview participants said that as self-employed musicians they had assumed individual responsibility for managing all aspects of their health. They suggested that more needs to be done to prepare musicians for this reality, including knowing where to look for support and help when needed. Significant inroads have taken place in recent years in this area, such as the work of Support Act, Entertainment Assist and the arts wellbeing collective initiative offered by the Melbourne Arts Centre. However, it could be argued that more needs to be done to open discussions and assist musicians with regards to well-being. Access to physical therapies and preventative physical care education for musicians needs to be built in to curriculum. In recent online learning scenarios, music teachers have arguably been more in contact with their students, more focussed on sound, posture and well-being as students and teachers navigate this new online learning environment (Tomlinson, et. al. unpub); perhaps change in this area is already underway.

Recommendation 5 calls for further action from tertiary institutions with regard to inclusion, diversity, access and equity in both curriculum and student access. Tertiary educational institutions are uniquely positioned to provide musicians with experiences that include Australian First Nations’ music, Australian composers, female and non-binary voices and a broad range of musical perspectives. Recommendation 5 suggests a significant overhaul of curricula and a more holistic and critical underpinning for music education. These changes might ensure that graduates can demonstrate future-oriented, Australian-centred, diverse perspectives in music making, and can champion this through all aspects of their careers.

In summary, the research confirms that Australian musicians navigate a complex landscape in order to grow and sustain their careers. The report identified gaps in portfolio musicians’ professional skill development; that musicians want to accept diverse performance roles and have the technical and stylistic skills necessary to do so; and that musicians need to graduate with the skills to manage their bodies, minds and business aspects of music work.

These findings, in the time of COVID-19, provide educators with opportunities to integrate key findings and recommendations into our programs. This includes working on our admission processes, selection of set works, and consideration for the student well-being now and into the future.


Bartleet, B. L., Bennett, D., Bridgstock, R., Harrison, S., Draper, P., Tomlinson, V., & Ballico, C. (2020). Making Music Work: Sustainable Portfolio Careers for Australian Musicians. Australia Research Council Linkage Report. Brisbane: Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre, Griffith University.

Tomlinson, V., Weston, D., Tolmie, D., Coutts, L, (unpub). Musicking Alone? QCRC pilot study. Brisbane: Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre, Griffith University.


Making Music Work was an initiative of Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre (QCRC), Griffith University, with industry partners, Australia Council for the Arts, Create NSW, Creative Victoria, Western Australian Government – Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries (DLGSC), and institutional partner Curtin University.  It was supported by the Australian Research Council as a Linkage project from 2016-2019.   The research team included Professor Brydie-Leigh Bartleet, Professor Dawn Bennett, Professor Ruth Bridgstock, Professor Scott Harrison, Professor Paul Draper, Professor Vanessa Tomlinson and Research Fellow Dr Christina Ballico.

Professor Vanessa Tomlinson is an artistic researcher, whose body of creative work serves to stimulate and activate community engagement, especially with regards to climate action, listening, music performance and community participation. Central to her work is the creative act of making, experimenting, collaborating and sharing – learning through doing. She is the Deputy Director of Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre and program director of the Doctor of Musical Arts. In addition she is Head of Percussion and contributes to many different areas of the curriculum.

Professor Ruth Bridgstock is Director of Curriculum and Teaching Transformation in the Centre for Learning Futures at Griffith University. Ruth is passionate about fostering the future capability of learners, teachers and educational institutions. Ruth engages in research and scholarship into education for the changing world of work and social challenges we all face, capability needs, and approaches to learning in the digital age. Ruth is Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (now Advance HE UK), adjunct professor at QUT and UniSA, and is Australian National Senior Teaching Fellow for Graduate Employability 2.0, which is concerned with social capital and how learners, teachers and institutions can connect with others to enhance their learning and work practices. Ruth’s books include Creative Work Beyond the Creative Industries: Employment, Innovation and Education (Edward Elgar, 2014), Creative Education Pathways Within and Beyond the Creative Industries (Routledge, 2016), and Higher Education and the Future of Graduate Employability: A Connectedness Learning Approach (Edward Elgar, 2018). Ruth’s blog can be found at

Professor Brydie-Leigh Bartleet is Director of the Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre, Griffith University, Australia. She is known worldwide for her research in community music and community engagement and has led many projects that explore the social impact of the arts. She has worked in partnership with a wide range of NGOs, arts and community organizations, and colleagues across Australia and internationally to design, drive and deliver innovative and highly complex projects. This work has led to new and interdisciplinary approaches to music research that intersect with health and wellbeing, corrections and criminology, Indigenous and cultural policy, social justice and regional arts development, and most recently human rights. She has worked on five nationally competitive grants, five consultancies and three prestigious fellowships (totalling over $1.2 million), as well as 140 research outputs in high-level national and international publications, and keynotes in Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Japan, Germany and Ireland. In 2014 she was awarded the Australian University Teacher of the Year and in 2018 she was awarded a highly competitive Art for Good Fellowship from the Singapore Foundation.

Professor Dawn Bennett is Distinguished Professor of Higher Education with Curtin University, where she directs the EmployABILITY thinking and Creative Workforceinitiatives. Dawn grew up in England, the daughter of two musicians. She studied music performance (viola) and worked as a chamber and orchestral musician in the UK and Australia before embarking on her research career. A National Senior Australian Learning and Teaching Fellow and Principal Fellow with the HEA, Dawn is Adjunct Professor with Griffith and Monash Universities, Visiting Fellow with the Sibelius Academy and Research Fellow with the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education. Publications are recorded at Researchgate.

More from this issue

More from this issue

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