NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

On whose terms? Recalibrating engagement with First Nations’ Peoples and communities at the ANU School of Music

By Jennifer Newsome — The ANU School of Music is currently pursuing a bold and progressive approach to the way it engages and does business with First Nations’ People and communities.

At the heart of this approach is a recalibration of relations with First Nations’ Peoples and communities through a fundamental reorganisation of relations of power and influence within the institution based in principles of Indigenous self-determination and (social) justice. This aims to provide a counteractive strategy to historic inequities by opening up spaces for the expression of Indigenous rights, agency and autonomy within and associated with the work of the institution.

The approach taken by the School repositions First Nations’ business as core business and privileges the voices and authority of First Nation’s People in determining Indigenous-led strategy grounded in First Nations’ aspirations, expectations and realities. This provides an ethically-informed way for the institution to meet its declared obligations and grapple more effectively with inherent complexities and challenges arising from a deep and entrenched colonial legacy. For the School this has meant taking proactive action in support of the interests and concerns of First Nations’ Peoples, recognising the importance of music and music-making to First Nations’ Peoples and validating the right of First Nations’ musicians to a preeminent place at the table, as First Peoples. This represents a “vision oriented” rather than “fix what is” approach, with the aim of ensuring that developments in the First Nations’ space are vested firmly in the hands of First Nations’ People and prioritise the interests of First Nations’ People, with the goal of ensuring that benefits accrue in particular to First Nations’ People. Surely a paradigm shift whose time has come.

The change process is a transformative one that has been some time in the making and gathering apace with recent targeted appointments, new projects and consolidation of initiatives creating “spaces and places” within and associated with the institution that are owned by First Nations’ People. More often than not, these spaces are situated in intersecting community-institution contexts that are neither wholly owned nor controlled by the institution, but that are able to provide collaborative opportunities where First Nations’ strengths and influence can be brought to bear through a shared investment in productive outcomes.

Institutional receptiveness has been a crucial element, characterised by an overt commitment and openness to challenging an established “status quo”, and in particular with regard to priority-setting and decision-making. Established First Nations’ leadership has been charting the way forward, and this, together with genuine leadership support by the institution, is proving essential to an effective change process. The growing concentration of First Nations’ expertise combined with the strengths of an extended internal and external First Nations’ network of practitioners provides the necessary presence, will and essential “know how” to make things happen and happen quickly and productively.

All-important changes are also taking place at the structural and systems level of the School. Central to this has been establishment of the ANU School of Music Indigenous Reference Group as a new governance body for the School, whose role is to oversee and guide the ongoing development of the School’s First Nations’ engagement policy and strategic direction. The impetus for the establishment of this new body arose from PhD research conducted by this author which had highlighted the critical importance of Indigenous-led developmental processes within the institutional context. This new Reference Group continues to provide oversight and input into the ongoing PhD project which is investigating the priorities, requirements and needs of diverse First Nations’ Peoples and communities in engaging with the Australian tertiary music education system and will be providing evidence-based recommendations to inform the future First Nations’ strategy of the School.

The School has taken an evidence-based approach to developmental change, drawing on the experientially-informed expertise of First Nations’ People and key success factors identified in recent successful First Nations’ projects hosted by the School. These included the award-winning national Ngarra-burria First Peoples Composers program led by Associate Professor Christopher Sainsbury (also the Schools Indigenous Convenor); the inaugural ANU Coombs Indigenous Fellow, proposed by the Indigenous Convenor, the first of whom was First Nations’ Elder music statesman Joe Geia; the Yil Lull Recording Studio, named by Joe Geia after one of his most iconic songs and led by preeminent First Nations’ producer Will Kepa; and the Space to Create project, a nationally-focussed partnership with the Australia Council.

These exemplar projects have some features in common which have contributed to their success. These include: being First Nations’-led and First Nations’ participant-focussed; led by expert First Nations’ practitioners and involving predominantly First Nations’ participants; targeting an identified gap or priority area of interest or need to First Nations’ People; contributing to sustaining and developing First Nations culture through music; having a high degree of First Nations’ autonomy over goals, processes and outcomes; harnessing First Nations’ organisational and partner expertise and strengths; building on and building First Nations’ networks; being collaboratively framed and focussed on sharing knowledge amongst participants; resulting in tangible practical and creative outcomes; being based in shared goals, long-term commitment, and investment in ongoing relationships; being culturally relevant and responsive, and “culturally safe”; being flexible and adaptable to a diversity of individual interests and needs; being adequately resourced and well-organised; making space within the host institution for the activity; including some social aspects; providing long-term tangible benefits for participants; and notably, in the spirit of rectifactory justice, being free or involving minimal cost to participants, where the host institution seeks to be of service in redressing past wrongs. Perhaps the least that could be expected given the circumstances.


Jennifer Newsome is a PhD candidate and sessional lecturer at the ANU School of Music. Her PhD research is investigating ways of improving outcomes for diverse Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and communities in the Australian tertiary music education system through an Indigenous-informed co-design case study at the ANU School of Music.

Her previous teaching and research was based at the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM) at the University of Adelaide where for nearly 30 years she contributed to the co-development and implementation of a range of collaboratively-framed participatory-action research projects and innovative community-integrated strategic initiatives in support of the cultural and educational rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and communities in the Australian tertiary music education system.

Her publications and conference presentations have encompassed topics on applied research in Australian First Nations’ contexts, Australian Indigenous tertiary music education, historical biography and historical discourse on South Australian Aboriginal music and culture. She has also been involved in the curation of a wide variety of performance events, and the commissioning and premiere performance of new music, including as a professional flautist. She is a long-standing member of the International Council for Traditional music (ICTM) where she was a founding member of the ICTM Study Group on Applied Ethnomusicology.

More from this issue

More from this issue

By Associate Prof Chris Sainsbury, Professor Frank Millward and Professor Kim Cunio — The title of this edition is a provocation. While it is not too late, we at the Academy have for too long done too little, and this issue takes a journey into the life of a music school that has decided to get on the ground and do its bit.
By Pat O’Grady — My office in the ANU School of Music shares a wall with Yil Lull studio, one of the few studios in Australia dedicated to recording First Nations’ music. The walls are thin. I often hear the wonderful music taking place on the studio floor.
By Professor Kim Cunio — I am really proud of our music school. It has accomplished a great deal, rebuilding, decolonising and allowing an evolution in First Nations practice to occur.
By Tor Frømyhr — Many wander through life unaware of the real story that led to their existence and the course their lives have taken. Is it important? For many, not really. For me, vitally important.
By Dr Chris Sainsbury — When a music school gets it right pertaining to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engagement, a certain feeling grows within the school. “Feel” is a word that I intentionally borrow from music-making. Speaking from our in-house example, it feels positive and empowering for First Nations students, staff and visiting First Nations peoples who often engage with us.
By Matt Livingstone, Mat Taylor and Steven Vranch — Yamaha is the world’s largest manufacturer of musical instruments. Formed in 1887, the company has a long history of engineering innovation, design creativity and supporting musicians, producing music making devices ranging from reed organs and pianos, through trumpets, saxophones and violins to digital mixing consoles, recording interfaces and software.
By Dr Scott Davie — In 2020, the ANU School of Music devised an innovative research project aimed at engaging Indigenous composers with an old keyboard instrument, the Henrion piano.
By Professor Frank Millward — There are many things that need to be remembered in relation to Indigenous Australians. Here are three we may have chosen to forget or have faded enough from our collective memory that they may be considered as forgotten...
Professor Frank Millward talks to Will Kepa, producer, engineer and director of the Yil Lull Indigenous Recording Studio at the ANU School of Music