I first met Richard Gill on a spring day in 2006, out the back of Cliff Goodchild’s Kensington home, writes Organiser Pat Devery.
We were meeting to finalise Gill’s appointment as the Patron for the NSW School Band Festival, now the Australian School Band and Orchestra Festival (ASBOF). I didn’t fully appreciate the portent of the meeting at the time. Two great visionaries in the Australian music education scene, trading stories like a pair of old prize fighters.
For me, the vision and energy of the two men was palpable: Goodchild, the founder and driving force behind the Festival; Gill, well on the way to forging his reputation as a national icon in music education, having recently come to the notice of the broader Australian public through his colourful appearances on the ABC’s Spicks and Specks. Gill’s blend of intelligence, musical knowledge, and the great sense of fun with which he approached life, was obvious for all to see on television. But it was nothing compared to seeing him working up close with young people.
I had been lucky enough to witness this first hand in the late 90s while working at a western Sydney school well known for its sporting prowess. A group of players from the First XIII Rugby League team, returning from an afternoon training session, stopped in at the gymnasium where Gill was running a soundcheck for a regional tour of The Magic Flute. Gill spied them in the bleachers and, never one to miss an opportunity to proselytise, he coaxed them down to the stage area and gave them a rapid fire synopsis of the story along with a quick explanation as to what he was trying to achieve in the rehearsal.
Ever alert to his audience, Gill pitched his explanations in terms of the unique physical skills required of the artists: the preparation, teamwork, and attention to detail essential to each performance; and the long hours and incredible discipline required to produce music at an elite level – something which resonated strongly with the gifted young athletes he had before him. I have rarely seen a more unlikely and more engaging teaching moment. It was like watching a master craftsman working his clay.
Lifeblood of a nation
“Every child deserves a music education,” Gill used to say. He believed the arts are the lifeblood of a nation and that music was at the heart of the arts. “Without music,” he asserted “no culture can call itself complete”. It followed, then, that an education with little or no music at its core was an incomplete education, and Gill set about convincing the nation.
Gill and Goodchild were united in their shared understanding that the musical endeavours of young people ought to be celebrated; that authentic music education is not about competitions, judging and ranking, winners and losers.
Back in the 1980s, well before it became the norm in our schooling system, the Festival had moved to criteria based assessment. Choosing from a set of events which represent a continuum of musical development based on the level of music required, music directors (MDs) self-select the event in which to present their ensemble. The diagnostic feedback they receive from qualified music educators allows MDs to gauge the progress of their instrumental programs and set appropriate goals for their continuing musical development. Young musicians of all ability levels – from those just starting out on their musical journey, to our most accomplished ensembles – are deeply engaged in this shared creative event where risk taking is encouraged and achievement is celebrated.
Years of lobbying saw Gill set up the national Music Teacher Mentoring Program in 2016, aimed at reigniting the capacity and passion for primary school teachers to deliver music programs. He believed that the very things which promoted literacy and numeracy are the arts, beginning with serious arts education in the early years. If we want a creative nation, an imaginative nation, a thinking nation, and a nation of individuals, he would say, then we must increase the time for arts education, especially music education.
Gill understood that music, when properly taught by trained professionals, requires an extraordinarily high level of listening and concentration from the student. It requires the student to have a capacity to work in the abstract, an ability to work across several skill areas simultaneously and the ability to rationalise this verbally.
Rather than relying on individual parent communities, how much better would it be, he reasoned, to see our governments commit to appropriately fund the training of specialist music teachers who will pay our community back a thousandfold by enriching the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. It is noticeable that there is a constant push to ensure we have qualified maths and science teachers in our classrooms. All the evidence points to the study of music being no less significant to a child’s learning outcomes.
We currently have no comprehensive national instrumental music program in place. Queensland is often touted as the leader in the field, with every government school theoretically entitled to a qualified music teacher. Conversations with practitioners in the field, however, would indicate that the delivery of these programs is uneven, largely dependent on the availability of suitably trained teachers and a supportive school leadership team and parent community.
Despite the lack of a system wide approach, Gill’s philosophy of winning people over, one conversation at a time, is having an effect. More than 10,000 students from over 320 primary and secondary school concert and big bands, string ensembles and orchestras from NSW, interstate, and international schools perform at the ASBOF each year, and there are some great things happening in schools.
Music alive and well
If anyone needs to be convinced that instrumental music is alive and well in our schools, despite the inherent obstacles MDs and students face, one only need attend the Percy Grainger Premier Event for secondary school concert bands at the ASBOF in July. The incredible musical proficiency on display, from schools such as Manly Selective High, Sydney Grammar, Barker College and Newtown High School of the Performing Arts, regularly astounds audiences and never ceases to elicit praise from our international adjudicators who struggle to comprehend how we produce such excellent results against the odds. As Gill would say, how much more will we achieve when we are given the resources to do it properly?
Gill and Goodchild both possessed a burning passion for Australian music. In 2016, in what was probably an Australian first, the Festival made it compulsory for all ensembles to perform a work by an Australian composer, the idea being to support our local talent and to promote a homegrown music culture. Gill loudly applauded this idea.
Goodchild also insisted all the Festival events be named in honour of Australians who had made significant contributions to the Australian music or music education scene: the two most recently initiated events honouring Jodie Blackshaw (concert bands) and Judy Bailey (big bands). The Premier Secondary School Orchestral Event, implemented in 2016, was named in honour of Gill, despite his protestations. “You’re not going to be around forever,” I quipped at the time.
The music education legacy of both men continues to this day. The ASBOF has an annual $5000 scholarship in honour of Goodchild, and Gill’s impact continues both with his National Mentor Program and the Muswellbrook Richard Gill Music Academy; a school set to open in 2020 with a small cohort from K-3 with Gill’s music education philosophy at its core.
Richard Gill passed away on 28 October 2018. He leaves a significant legacy as an inspiration to, and mentor for, conductors, musicians, composers and music educators nationwide. His work is an example of how we must never give up the idea that every child in this country should have access to the best education we can provide, and that music must be an essential part of that idea.
We will leave the final word to Richard:
“We teach music because it is unique and good. We teach music so that children can make their own music. We teach music because it acts in a unique way on the heart, mind, soul and spirit of the child, stimulating thought and imagination in very special ways. These are the real reasons for teaching music.”
Pat Devery is an IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Organiser with 26 years teaching experience.Pat first became involved with the NSW School Band Festival in the 1980s, working alongside Cliff Goodchild. After Cliff’s death in 2008, Pat became General Manager. In recent years Pat worked with Richard Gill for the 2019 relaunch of the Australian School Band and Orchestra Festival.