NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

What does it feel like?

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.

For those concerned, empowerment suggests itself as “hey we own a place here and can direct a piece of this whole of school happening.” First Nations peoples must feel that they have a place and a sense of directing certain things. That spills over into the broader life of the school, to other staff and students, to events, even to the café! Meaningful engagement and empowerment provide that buoyant feeling.

Where does it start? At least one person has to be active pertaining to relationships with First Nations communities and the First Nations music industry. Simply and unapologetically doing what they do as if it was already a part of the standard operating procedures of the school, signaling to people, “This is what our school does”, and “this is going to grow”. We can talk about our responsiveness to University Strategic Plans (Indigenous matters), United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, or Reconciliation Australia’s advice and practical strategies. Ultimately that stuff is the established bedrock that we don’t need to keep revisiting, we’ve just got to get dancing in the sands above all of that. It starts with you and I doing something.

We have established an Indigenous Convenor for the coordination of all things pertaining to Indigenous matters within courses and programs, the wider University, and intersections with First Nations community and music industry practitioners. A component of this role is advocacy for First Nations students and staff. Such advocacy must be practical.

As a school, we recommend that spaces must be created for that engagement and empowerment to occur. This might look different at different times. It could be a Fellowship (which we’ve established), an Artist in Residence, employing First Nations professional staff or First Nations academics where possible (which we have done), or it may be a dedicated studio space. We have a physical space that is set aside for Indigenous music-making, and we focus on making music with one another. In the sequence of things, a vibe has to be created with First Nations peoples as they intersect with the school. Essential is the music-making.

What does it cost? Cost is an interesting word. Such an undertaking must actually cost the school. The Head of School and School Manager, and their overseers must commit funds from the core budget, not ancillary funding. That is, this must be a normalised part of a yearly budget. If you spend from your core budget then First Nations people will know that you’ve made a commitment. We do that. We also have an inhouse University grant, but that is not the sole funding.

Might tensions arise with such initiatives? Yes, because not everyone will be happy with such arrangements. It is my observation that one academic from our school moved on to work overseas, partly because of what we were doing in this space. I believe that they felt it meant a decline in focus on purely classical music initiatives. Ultimately, I don’t think it does, but I must emphasise that practical equity does redefine things for a school, people must be willing to embrace that change.

Can it all go off the boil? Yes. Things can grow stagnant just like with any engagement or initiative. The key is to maintain engagement and making music. Keep a flow of people, old and new, First Nations and others. All must be included, and all must be focused on making music, not just talking about strategic plans, human rights, reconciliation – all important, but when engaging with First Nations musicians, the key is to simply make music!

At times, for First Nations events we employ a producer to enable the smooth running of the event. This must be a First Nations person or a person who has some relationship with First Nations people. A recent producer here was a non-Indigenous graduate who was previously a classmate of Brenda Gifford, and now at times works as her copyist. He also studied with me and so he was comfortable in this space. After working on the Space to Create event for a week he said, “this has changed my life”. How great is that? The transformative power of being a part of Indigenous culture for a week.

Yes, “feel” is a signifier of getting it right in the First Nations space. And it will cost a school, but with so many hundreds of leading Australian musicians having “borrowed” (previously and currently) from First Nations cultures without respectful relationships in place, we now are obliged as institutions to spend from our core budgets, get it right and have fun along the way.


Dr Chris Sainsbury is Senior Lecturer in Composition, Songwriting, Australian Indigenous Music (Contemporary), Australian Music Studies, Founder and Artistic Director Ngarra-burria First Peoples Composers Program.

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 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.
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