School groups silenced during COVID-19 closures


Pensini believes the reduction in requests partly reflects moderate audience confidence and “out of sight, out of mind” music for families during a year of intense entertainment.

“Statistically, if you haven’t started learning an instrument by the age of 11, you’re unlikely to start,” he says. “This is where we at the Sydney Youth Orchestra are likely to see an impact not only now, but in the years to come when there are fewer students who have started an instrument this year and last.

Megan Lipworth says recruiting next year’s rookies is the biggest challenge she faces.Credit:Edwina pickles

“Keeping students who know the wonderful buzz and energy of playing music together has supported us so far, although connecting with students who have never had this opportunity will be difficult for everyone there. ‘to come up. “

Music education in NSW schools was already in a state of distress before COVID-19 hit, Pensini says.

He mentions a 2019 report from Tony Foundation that music education in Australia is inequitable, highly variable and undervalued.

This despite several national reviews and a compelling body of evidence showing the significant positive cognitive and developmental impacts of high quality music education.

Happier times: The Sydney Youth Orchestra performs at Martin Place in 2018.

Happier times: The Sydney Youth Orchestra performs at Martin Place in 2018.Credit:Nick moir

Learning music has been shown to have a positive impact on brain development, improving language, literacy, reading, comprehension, auditory memory, spatial and self-regulatory skills, well-being. be psychological and health.

Students who engage in learning music perform better academically, contribute to their community, form positive relationships, and continue their studies at university.

All states except the NSW Department of Education offer some kind of government-funded instrumental program, Pensini explains.

Public schools in New South Wales rely on tutors and music directors hired on an occasional basis, usually through parent and citizen organizations, to deliver external music programs before and after school. ‘school.

Morrison says, “So many of these people have been left out to dry. Some of them teach online, but we’ve had a lot of schools that drop out of the band altogether.

To revive school music and arts programs, the Berejiklian government announced grants of up to $ 10,000 per school to cover equipment, teacher release, student tuition, or teacher professional training.

Morrison teaches the Terrey Hills Public School performing group, rehearsing every Tuesday morning via Zoom before the online learning begins. He also teaches professional music development to teachers in Western Australia and South Australia.


Last year, Morrison, jazz drummer and brother of trumpeter James Morrison, conducted “months and months of bucket drumming” before his school band members were allowed to return to their instruments.

“It was very difficult for a lot of music teachers,” he says. “They had to hone their skills, and now we see a lot of music directors leaving the game, and that will be the biggest problem. We are going to lose this incredible knowledge base that we had. “

This is likely to aggravate an impending ‘skills cliff’ identified by the Tony report. He predicts a decline in the availability of competent and confident music educators in schools over the next decade due to changes in university teacher education.

The Australian School Band and Orchestra Festival was three weeks away from opening when the Sydney lockdown was called in July. Two hundred and forty groups were registered for 2021, against 350 the previous year.

The festival hosts concerts, school-aged brass and big bands, string ensembles and orchestras of all levels.

Festival General Manager Pat Devery says, “We’re not just losing the musicians of the future, but the audiences of the future. We have about 150 music directors who go bankrupt because of the lack of work in schools and community ensembles. While there has been some attention recently on the impact of COVID-19 on the popular music scene, the extent of the damage to school instrumental programs has not yet been fully realized. “


The crisis is being felt hard by music education providers and nonprofits, such as Musica Viva, Musical Futures and The Song Room, which are bridging the musical skills gap in schools.

The Song Room provides curriculum-aligned music and arts programs to approximately 13,000 of Australia’s most disadvantaged school children each year.

Executive Director Alice Gerlach says her organization provides generalist teachers with the resources to integrate music into their online programs.

“We focus on what kids can do at home, be it singing, body drumming, or using household items as instruments, but there are schools where worksheets are the only way to do it. ‘teach,’ she said.

“This makes a music program difficult because students need opportunities to collaborate and share experiences, especially in music and the performing arts,” she says. “What kids miss are opportunities to be inspired by the everyday music in their lives. They miss the opportunities to connect, to belong, to share the arts together. important to be a happy and healthy person.

‘Heartbreak’ for young musicians stuck at home

Playing to pre-recorded muted backing tracks doesn’t provide satisfying rehearsal, says Megan Lipworth, Sydney School Music and Orchestra Director.

Lipworth, who also does early childhood music with ARIA-nominated group Tiptoe Giants, says moving school and community groups online has been a “stressful rush.”

To some extent, the online format has been a bridge for its students and musicians, Lipworth says.

But learning, teaching and creating instrumental music is all about feedback and interaction and it has been difficult to achieve.

Burnout is palpable, she says, as music directors redefine the business, discover new technology – or not – and keep band members alive.

Lipworth says her most important responsibility as a group manager will be recruiting newbies for next year. The return to the group has been fragile at best after the lockdowns of 2020.

“While the drop in musical level was expected and accepted with patience and forgiveness by all, it was nonetheless overwhelming, and some were unwilling to continue after the setback,” she said.

Lipworth’s hours and salary dropped to keep the groups viable. In the beginner groups, the number of members has dropped to 30 percent.

“Not only are these hapless newbies being denied the best possible setup, they’re stuck at home going it alone,” she says.

Other community groups registered record registrations after the lockdown was lifted. ” Maybe a Large Yellow Taxi phenomenon – “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.”

This time around, Lipworth says that “this intermittent affair with our great love of music is starting to wear off.”

“We’re holding on to straws to keep innovating online, to keep motivation, inspiration and incentive for players and group leaders,” she said.

“The uncertain promise of a triumphant return to this sublime experience of playing and performing live is becoming more and more abstract, especially for many young musicians who may never have known the slightest glimmer of this privilege. before being separated from their conductors and orchestral companions.

“Beyond this grief for the musicians, my heart bleeds for the audience and a society that fails to receive this nourishment from us.

“Why work so hard to survive if not to live surrounded by people and share the best and most beautiful parts of our human experience – art and music. More than ever, our students are asking themselves’ what is the point? “”

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