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10 June 2009

Beyond Conservatorium Walls

Placing a conservatorium within the community: a case study

Helen Lancaster Image: Helen Lancaster  

No conservatorium is an island. As providers of music education and training, and often as proprietors of key performance venues, they hold a place in the cultural infrastructure of the community in which they reside. Each institution exists in a unique environment which has individual characteristics reflective of the various communities with which it connects.

Such factors make it important for music institutions to be reflective of their reason for being and their practice, and how those factors affect positioning within their various communities – geographical, social, artistic, political, professional, industrial and educational.

In this context, one of the essential questions for the contemporary conservatorium is whether the institution has a responsibility to position itself in a proactive way, to anticipate and lead practice which reflects the institution’s particular time and place.

As changing governance and financial relationships took their toll during the post-amalgamation decade of the nineties, some Australian music institutions bunkered down and focused on their place within their newly acquired parent university. There was a whole new culture to learn and deal with, and in most cases university expectations were less concerned with external relationships. Those music institutions which were able to maintain their place within the community during that period of change have forged a very different path to that of institutions which abandoned their place within a broader context.

For many music institutions, survival in an increasingly competitive market has been a driver for change, for thinking outside the traditional conservatorium walls. By its very nature, the conservatorium is naturally linked to the community through the provision of performance and teaching services. Professional artists, both resident and visiting, are usually employed in a range of performance activities, most of which are accessible to the community. Teaching services become a natural extension of this resource. Performance venues and soundstages in their turn become part of the repertoire of 'community' performance venue and recording resources.

This fundamental link between institution and community generates obvious cultural benefits and has the potential for contributing to growth in the cultural infrastructure of the community. The extent of growth is very likely to be affected by the institution’s perception of its place within its city or region, and whether it maintains a policy of 'But wait, there’s more! Possible advantages extend beyond the educational and artistic.'proactive involvement in the various musical communities and relevant industries in the area. The institution’s perception of its role beyond its walls is the single most significant factor contributing to the realisation of its full potential.

But wait, there’s more! Possible advantages extend beyond the educational and artistic. By attracting visitors as artists and audience, music institutions bring economic benefit to the area through cultural tourism, increased population, and changing demographics. Student and staff performers have the potential to provide entertainment for the tourist and leisure industries, further developing economic progress. The peripheral advantages of a proactive conservatorium enhance the region’s reputation, building confidence amongst those who might be considering relocating to the area. This can be of particular significance to non-metropolitan centres. As Bannister notes in reference to the regional conservatoriums in NSW,

The great benefit that the regional institutions brought to their communities was the development of more comprehensive teaching staffs, and more cohesive centres for music making.i

Such a suggestion has reverse undertones. If a community which accommodates a conservatorium is likely to enjoy benefits from the association, it follows that communities which do not house conservatoria may be disadvantaged. Without access to the ongoing benefits which are associated with music institutions, a community may lack the strength to create and maintain a strong cultural foundation.

In any community, such a foundation recognises the importance of culture of all kinds. Music is only one of many cultural elements, all of which stimulate and nourish the community in numerous ways. As Lyndon Terracini, Artistic Director of the Brisbane Festival (and formerly the Queensland Music Festival) notes,

A creative culture … provides sustenance and inspiration. It generates optimism, wealth and harmony within communities.ii

and goes on to say:

Developing the existing culture of a town or region is the first building block in the creation of art. Art develops from a strong cultural base. It cannot exist in isolation. If we aspire to create great art, then we must first develop our cultural life.

Engaging with people to stimulate their interest and participation, articulating the notion that as human beings we need art to function in a complete and holistic way and observing 'A strong community culture might be built from grass roots, but it may aspire to excellence. It will do so only with stimulation, and for music, such stimulation is the responsibility of the music institution.'the difference that participation in a process such as ‘making music’ can make to a community is what we need to connect with.

The cultural life of our nation begins in individual communities, it begins with individual human beings, it begins with us.iii

A strong community culture might be built from grass roots, but it may aspire to excellence. It will do so only with stimulation, and for music, such stimulation is the responsibility of the music institution. The choices an institution makes will therefore shape that culture. For example, classically based training will mould a different generation of musicians than will a jazz or contemporary music curriculum.

The obvious implication for a conservatorium-free society is two-fold: at the very least, it means fewer performances of quality and the reduced likelihood for students to access teaching of a high standard, whatever the genre. Fewer performances reduce musical opportunities, but lack of quality training has a more acute effect: reduced access to competitive standards. By the time the student is faced with the realisation that their experience is insufficient, it is already too late.

… a critically important objective of the teaching programs in the regional Conservatoriums ought to be to bring children, by Year Twelve, to a level which would equip them to enter tertiary programs broadly educated, confident and well-prepared for success in music.iv

On the surface of it, these undertones are sufficient for concern about inequity. Considering the broader potential advantage a conservatorium-style institution might bring to a community, the implications are significant.

The conservatorium is more than a place for music training, rehearsal and performance. It is a cultural asset with the potential to offer cultural energy to the place in which it exists. It has the capacity to serve as a focal point for music. The creation of enduring links of many kinds reaches beyond those who study or have interest in music performance. In these ways, an institution shapes its own ‘place’.

Some conservatoria rely on this potential for their success, by seeking to influence a wider audience.

The Central Queensland Conservatorium of Music (CQCM), a small conservatory established in 1989 in regional Queensland is one example of an institution which embedded itself within the community beyond predictable measures. The City of Mackay shaped the evolution of the young institution. Because of the community’s financial support, the CQCM gave higher priority to community needs than those of the parent university. Thus began the relationship which created for Mackay an enduring cultural infrastructure.

From the outset, the CQCM responded to community influence more than is usual of an academic institution: it established a tapestry of cultural industries which complemented its work. At the time, Gillian Wills, Chair of the National Council for Heads of Music Schools (NACTMUS), said that 'music schools can learn from the entrepreneurial spirit of the Central Queensland Conservatorium which is earning between 30 and 40 per cent of its annual budget from continuing education and performance programs.'v

Survival required that the Conservatorium should be woven into the cultural fabric of the region, to provide a tangible demonstration of its usefulness to the community. Part of this strategy resulted in the establishment of a feeder system of instrumental teaching in the schools as well as at the Conservatorium. As Patricia Kelly noted,

…the Central Queensland Conservatorium never forgot its community roots. For instance, it has nine music teachers employed to travel to the tiny one-teacher public schools in a wide surrounding area. It instigates all sorts of other performance projects with community involvement. Let us hope that it becomes a model for emulation.vi

To match local pre-tertiary strengths, ‘boutique-style’ programs were developed in music theatre and jazz. A number of relevant industries were created to the advantage of both Conservatorium and city, including an entertainment agency to service the professional performance needs of the tourist industry, a professional chamber orchestra to provide quality pit support for professional and pro-am productions of music theatre and dance, and a recording company.

Support from the Conservatorium made possible the establishment in 1991 of a pro-am opera company, Opera North, independent of but aligned to the Conservatorium. The pro-am structure was a necessary strategy for a regional centre: it brought professional experience into the community, whilst also including student and community participation in all aspects of production. Opera North was thus to become one of the external 'industry' training grounds for the music theatre students at the CQCM.

Similarly, other cultural industries beyond the conservatorium walls also matured. The annual Mackay Festival of Arts gained from the bigger pool of artists living locally. The professional chamber orchestra, The Lyrebird Ensemble, was available for performances of high quality, and was used on its own, as well as accompanying Opera North productions and touring artists.

Collaborations between performing and visual artists gave impetus to the regional visual arts industry. Indigenous artists, visual and performing, enjoyed a higher profile. A South Sea Island Chorus collaborated with Conservatorium staff to gain experience in developing their own repertoire and rehearsal techniques. Local artist Rosemary Payne spent three months in residence at the Conservatorium, sketching various activities and preparing an exhibition of paintings based on classes, activities, rehearsals and performances. The exhibition sold ninety per cent of the artworks.

There was a flow-on effect from these ventures: increased demand in the tourist industry, national media attention and industry support. In a short space of time, the conservatorium was 'There was a flow-on effect from these ventures: increased demand in the tourist industry, national media attention and industry support.'attracting a competitive intake of students from a national basevii. In a climate of restraint amidst the closure and decline of other music institutions, the young CQCM was growing at a rapid rate.viii Of greater significance than the actual numbers is the fact that in each year the intake was more competitive.ix

By 1999, Mackay’s strong cultural infrastructure made it an obvious choice as one of only two regional cities to host the inaugural Queensland Biennial Festival. The Mackay program featured collaborations between community groups and visiting professionals. The Mackay infrastructure made such a program easily achievable. In the words of Malcolm Gillies who reviewed one day of the festival for The Australian:

Mackay’s great Biennial … was not about music as music. It was about music as a means of forging new social connections. According to (Minister for the Arts, the Hon. Matt) Foley, such art is ‘core government business’. Saturday provided abundant evidence that that investment has paid off.x

Such progress was influenced by the proactive Conservatorium policy of prioritising involvement at local and state government levels. From an early stage, the Conservatorium management provided for Mackay City Council the service of coordinating music performance and education activities for the city, advising on the development of cultural policy in return for an annual financial subsidy to the Conservatorium.

In less than ten years, the shift in the city demographics was obvious. In 1989, the largest industries in Mackay were sugar, coal and beef. By 1999 they were sugar, coal, and educationxi.

Although the CQCM was not solely responsible for this growth in education, it did exert significant influence. Because it attracted students from other states and overseas, new student accommodation was built. This, in turn, stimulated an increase in regional students at the local campus of the Central Queensland University (CQU). As an extension, local independent schools began to market to international students, beginning a new stage in the development of the education industry.

But all things change. The first shift in positioning for the CQCM came when the CQU chose to place the new (State-funded) building on the CQU campus outside the city, ignoring the alternative in the centre of the city. The decision had a substantial impact on the community. The perception shifted from the CQCM as being part of the city’s own cultural precinctxii, to the CQCM being part of the university. The benefit to the university community was enormous: it gave great impetus to the university by offering direct access to Conservatorium study units and special facilities on the same campus, and by increasing student accommodation and conference venue options.

On the other hand, the community was angered by the university’s decision because it reduced community access and marginalised the Conservatorium from the community which had nurtured it for ten years. The Mackay City Council withdrew its annual financial support from 2000, the year in which the new facility was completed, allocating the resources to appointing an Arts Coordinator for the city.

Whilst the cultural infrastructure continues to be supported by local government, the Conservatorium no longer has its ‘place’ within the community. In acknowledgment of this shifting position, other corporate and private support from the community was also withdrawn at the same time.xiii

Change upon change continued to undermine the Conservatorium’s established place within its community: changing governance reduced the status of the CQCM within the university, the professional chamber orchestra lost its fundingxiv, and the relationship with the Mackay Festival of Arts was significantly reduced. Whereas in 1999 the CQCM made a major contribution to the performance and production needs of the Mackay component of the inaugural Queensland Biennial Festival of Music, in 2001 CQCM management chose not to do so. With a lower public profile locally, the conservatorium 'The traditional performance media of opera and orchestral music have faced a decline in audience response world-wide in recent years. To assume that this means a declining need for performance training is not necessarily appropriate.'enjoyed less community support than before. The positioning which had taken ten years to build was undermined in less than a year.

Thus the Conservatorium’s ‘place’ moved from community to university, which used the changing community support to adjust the CQCM’s remit to servicing other campuses of the university. This shifting emphasis on service to the university rather than to the community has seen the CQCM move through a number of changes since moving to its new place within the university campus.

The young CQCM is not alone in choosing to position itself within its community, but it is a clear example of how changing policy will impact on the institutional sense of place.

Conservatorium-style training is facing many changes which relate to the evolving needs of their various communities. The traditional performance media of opera and orchestral music have faced a decline in audience response world-wide in recent years. To assume that this means a declining need for performance training is not necessarily appropriate. There is a corresponding growth in other genres of live performance – contemporary music, jazz, rock/pop music, world music, technology-based live performance. There is not necessarily a decline in the need for training, but a shift in the type of training required. And in this trend lies a potential change of ‘place’.

The secret in choosing the appropriate path lies in positioning the institution – determining its place within the community in which it resides. Each community has different needs, and the roles played by each of those institutions mentioned above demonstrate how very different these needs, and, ergo, those paths might be.

Now, in times when elitism and the relevance of specialist institutions and programs are often questioned, conservatoria may find that they need to demonstrate tangible associations of diverse kinds if they are to secure a robust and meaningful relationship with society.


i Bannister, R. 2002, ' Notes on the Establishment of Regional Conservatoriums of Music', MCA Music Forum 8/3 February-March.
ii Terracini, L. 2001, ' Creative Country', Music Forum, Vol. 8 No.1, December, p. 32.
iii Terracini L. 2001, ' Creative Country', Music Forum, Vol. 8 No.1, December, p. 33.
iv Bannister, R. 2002. 'Notes on the Establishment of Regional Conservatoriums of Music', MCA Music Forum 8/3 February-March, p. 33.
v Lim, A. 1997, ' Bach and Bite',The Weekend Review, April 5-6.
vi Letts, D. 1999, ' Jig(s Up)', MCA Music Forum, October-November.
vii The 1999 intake attracted students from six states, at the competitive elimination rate of 1 in 5 selected from an intensive auditioning process. These statistics matched those of the former parent (Queensland Conservatorium) in that same year.
viii In 1989, the first intake of students was 19. The number varied between 30-40 for the following four years. After the introduction of specialist programs, the numbers increased rapidly. In 1996, the number of enrolled students was 65. In 1999, the number of enrolled students was 180.
ix From 1989-1994 all students who applied were accepted. In 1999, only 1 in 5 applicants were offered places.
x Gillies, M. 1999, ' The Muse visits Mackay' (review of one day of performances), The Australian, July 1999.
xi Statistics supplied by Queensland Department of State Development
xii The alternative plan under consideration had the new facility positioned within the cultural precinct which included theatres, restaurants and local government services.
xiii Major corporate sponsors Mackay Sugar and Ansett Airlines, together with three substantial private donors, withdrew their long-term support
xiv In 1999 State Government support for the orchestra was reduced, and discontinued from 2000. Whilst Conservatorium management in 1999 made up the shortfall, the new management from 2000 did not. The company dissolved in 2000.

Further links

For more detail on the CQCM story and also the establishment of the International Academy in Bangkok, see Lancaster, Helen. 'Conservatoria in Transition', Education of the Reflective Musician. ISME: 2002. Read article online.

A freelance consultant, Dr Helen Lancaster is Chair of the Music Council of Australia and Research Fellow of Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre, currently working on 'Places for Art' which explores the relationship between performance and place. She was Founding Director of Central Queensland Conservatorium and the International Academy of Music (Bangkok). Her research examining challenges confronting conservatorium leaders generated considerable interest. As guest editor of Sounds Australian No. 64 (2004) she reported on post-secondary music education and training - this study is being updated in 2009.


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