Mary Jo Capps AM

MA in Musicology University of Toronto
Honorary Doctor of Visual and Performing Arts University of Melbourne
Creative Partnerships Arts Leadership Award 2016

On her arrival in Perth 40 years ago Mary Jo Capps commenced her Australian cultural industry career, engaged by the Western Australia Symphony Orchestra and ABC Radio.

For 10 years she ran her own consultancy which supported corporate and strategic development of art companies including Sydney Symphony Orchestra, NIDA, Bangarra Dance Theatre and the Museum of Contemporary Art.
In 1999 Capps was appointed CEO of Musica Viva, where she has worked for 20 years, broadening access and understanding of fine music throughout Australia.

She broke glass ceilings in 2010 as the first woman president of the Sydney Business Chamber. She has held advisory positions as Chair of the Advisory Board of the Faculty of the VCA and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne, as well as Board Director of the NSW Business Chamber and of the Australian Major Performing Arts Group – as well as other education and not for profit organisations.

Having recently stepped down from her position as CEO of Musica Viva, Capps is looking with experience, vision and energy at new horizons.

Married to former ABC executive producer Lloyd Capps, their daughter, 32, and son, 27, have followed careers in the arts. Their daughter is a writer and editor and their son works in film sound design. Both live in London.

Mary Jo Capps speaks with journalist Bronwyn Ridgway about her teachers and mentors as well as her strong belief in the arts and its ability to help develop and inspire students and individuals in life’s search. Capps’ extraordinary drive added to her impetus at the helm of Música Viva, a non government organisation known to deliver exquisite musical performances throughout Australia, as well as intensive creative music programs for schools in cities, regions and remote areas.

“I attended coeducational Catholic schools in a relatively small town, St Catharines near Niagara Falls Ontario. The primary school was traditional, but the high school was progressive through to Grade 13, with a majority of lay people teaching rather than nuns or priests.

“Looking back, I recognise I was in the main bored with educational content; I finished my work quickly and wasn’t challenged. Regularly admonished for talking too much, I was considered a disruptive element in class. Although in Canada it had been a custom to advance clever students a grade, my mother resisted this in relation to my schooling, claiming it was important that I remain in my year group for social issues. But by Year 6, I was complaining so much about boredom, she relented. I skipped a grade, which helped a little. Ours was a good Catholic family, I was the youngest of five and with four big brothers, so I was eager to catch up.

“The whole family went to concerts, recitals, opera and to the theatre, we were all interested in the arts. Each one of us loved books and were big readers; I learnt as much out of school as within. At school back then, music wasn’t taught as part of the system or curriculum. The local organist used to come to the school, and we sang hymns, that was all. It was expected that you took music lessons out of school, which I did – piano and singing and I took piano exams to the Associate of the Conservatorium level. I was a better pianist than a singer. I think my parents saw music as another way to keep me occupied.

“My father was a lawyer; his father before him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. In many ways we were all expected to go into law. I broke the family mould and followed a career with music. My mother was very clever but with five children she was as they said then, ‘a housewife’, a very clever one.

Engaging teachers

“I was so fortunate to have two particularly amazing teachers. My primary school Grade 7 male teacher had learnt to stretch the rules to accommodate inquisitive students. He challenged us, which was wonderful. He had in fact had polio and one of his arms had been affected. But as he regularly reminded us, his polio-affected arm was ‘no barrier to his life’ and he ‘lived no differently to anyone else’. He wasn’t didactic, he didn’t take any rubbish, he was in fact inspirational.

“My Grade 4 teacher, Mrs Walsh, was also fabulous. She wasn’t a lot of laughs, but she was impactful and encouraged the curious. I wrote backhand – one of my private humiliations at that stage in my life. Mrs Walsh recognised the issues and helped me work out how I could use it and what I could do. She also noticed that I completed my class work very quickly and brought in her own books for me to read. At nine years of age I was given Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and it opened a whole new world to me. She then started bringing in books by Thomas Hardy, Fyodor Dostoevsky and other wonderfully exciting authors. For me this was a game changer, she recognised that I didn’t need to be limited by the framework of the school and its curriculum and she gave me authors who I found exciting. As a result, I was never bored in her class.

Society as a whole is searching for deeper meaning, a sense of purpose, something beyond pursuit of wealth and power. The arts offer a key component in that search.

“I went back as an adult and reread those books and realised I had only absorbed a fraction of the content but what my teacher did was recognise that I needed more stimulation and trusted me with her precious books, and it engaged me at a whole new level of learning. The key issue was my teacher’s ability to see beyond the strict framework and recognise that there are many ways to solve a problem. The ‘rules’ in Catholic or faith based schools were more apparent then, but engaging teachers like Mrs Walsh, were able to ‘listen’ and follow the ‘leads’.

University mentor remains an inspiration

“My parents were encouraging about whatever direction I wanted to go whether it was towards law, music or psychiatry. They encouraged me to leave my small home town to attend a large university and, given I had a boyfriend in that small town, I had to make a big decision. Deciding not to live at home but go to a large university like Toronto was a good step.

“At the University of Toronto, with its 80,000 students, I was in a big and exciting pond. While doing my Masters of Musicology, I was taught by the Professor of Musicology Gaynor Jones, who was and remains a source of inspiration to me. She had a way of inspiring us to never be limited by what we thought we could do.

“At university it was those who taught, looked and worked beyond the boundaries who I could say were great teachers and mentors. Those I admired had a great sense of fun which seamlessly infused the educative process.

From Canada to Australia – with love

“On graduating, my strategy was to go somewhere smaller than Toronto to get established. Good friends from Belfast who had moved to Perth encouraged the move. So at 23, off I went and I’m so glad I did. I landed on my feet and within a relatively short time of joining the ABC was managing the WA Symphony Orchestra. It was the perfect place to start a career in just about anything: open, friendly, and you had to cover everything.

“I met my partner Lloyd Capps through the ABC; he was Executive Producer of Towards 2000. We were both selected for a week-long residential course on leadership run by the ABC in Sydney and seven months later I’d moved to Sydney and we were married.

Extraordinary experiences with Musica Viva in schools

“Over the last 20 years, through Musica Viva, I’ve worked closely with primary school teachers and school staff, observing teachers in a variety of circumstances. What has been interesting to me is that in engaging the students, they all modelled curiosity and empathy, bringing the kids into the conversation, bringing out the best in their students. These are such important skills to use to assist students. For music, the period of Kindergarten to Year 8 is a critical time to develop and work with students.

“Musica Viva’s core aim is to provide students and teachers – particularly those living in communities disadvantaged by geographic location, size and financial hardship, with the opportunity to access quality music education.

“I’ve observed wonderful music education processes; for example, some teachers are untrained in music but know how important it is to introduce music to students. These teachers are still able to communicate music brilliantly. One recent experience was where Musica Viva was working with a phenomenal school in the Northern Territory, Bees Creek, 20kms outside of Darwin.

“We worked with an amazing teacher there who made it exciting for the students to come to school. Having worked with her online for about 10 months we then brought performance, the culmination of the program, into the school.

“The kids were so prepared, they knew all the songs, they knew what to expect, they were completely engaged and excited to be there. Musica Viva musicians were truly amazed.

“The other experience, again in the Northern Territory on Croker Island. It’s 200kms north of Darwin with an Indigenous community of 300; there are two teachers and two teacher aids, for the 75 kids at the school. The teaching principal had requested the program for Croker Island as a way of ‘capturing’ the kids… a way to get these four to 14 year olds to rejoin their education community and stimulate their learning.

“We had to charter a plane, which added considerable expense to get the program up there; we secured a special donor for this program given all the additional costs. At the end of an extraordinary second day of delivering the program up there, one of the 14 year old students came up to the principal and said ‘I know what I want to be when I grow up… I want your job!’

“It was quite a moment; the music program had brought him back into the fold and helped him to see that he could be more than he had thought he could be. I think that was great in and of itself. I recognise, as do all the staff, that Music Viva has a huge responsibility, a duty of care, from funding through to program and performance delivery.

“Musica Viva spends about a year working with each group before musicians go into the classroom. It’s about encouraging the children and the teachers to discover music on their own terms. Many primary school teachers have zero music background before they are placed in front of the class – it’s very daunting. So Musica Viva helps break down those barriers and their lack of confidence through the schools program.

“As education collaborators, we work alongside and empower the teacher, wherever they may be, in small country town schools, juvenile detention centres or city schools.

“Introducing Indigenous cultural programs into schools is exciting, but sometimes teachers are concerned about the way they need to do it; Musica Viva also assists there.

“In essence Musica Viva, a not for profit organisation, has two hearts: a concert performance side and an education schools program side. For the last 20 years my efforts have been to integrate these more.

“In relation to the selection of international musicians for concert tours around Australia, Musica Viva is constantly on the lookout. With an excellent reputation, established over 75 years, the organisation receives a flood of applications from ensemble musicians and performers. There’s actually nothing else like it in the world. It doesn’t pay the highest fees, but is able to recruit the world’s best performers by looking after them very well, so musicians love to come to Australia and tour.

“Where to from here in my portfolio career? I’m on a number of boards and I’ll mix pleasure and hard work with specialised international music tours. I’m most looking forward to mentoring emerging leaders here in Australia. A lot of people are nervous about taking on top roles and I am particularly keen to assist leaders in their first year when they need to learn very quickly how to manage a board and sit in the position where the buck stops.

“There’s a lot of fear in that ‘sink or swim’ first year of top leadership, I believe I’ll be able to assist in that important time.”

On Australia Day this year, Mary Jo Capps was awarded an AM for her extraordinary contribution to music and the arts in Australia.

“Now, every year approximately 300,000 experience Musica Viva in their schools; over 4000 teachers receive Musica Viva professional development; over 23% of participating children receive financial assistance to access these programs; over 2,200 live music activities are presented in schools; musicians travel around 125,000kms to deliver Musica Viva programs in schools.”
Access Musica Viva In Schools programs https://musicaviva.com.au/education or www.musicaviva.com.au