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13 March 2013

Helen Stowasser - an 80th birthday tribute

Helen Stowasser Image: Helen Stowasser  

'Helen's work made a very strong creative mark on school music. All teachers and students using her texts were expected to not only learn about other people's music, but make some of their own!', writes professor Peter Roennfeldt in his tribute to Helen Stowasser. The Queensland-based composer, academic and music educator celebrates her 80th birthday on 16 March 2013.

My initial contact with Helen Stowasser was somewhat confusing. As the 'new tutor' arriving midway during my undergraduate degree, my classmates and I thought we were attending just another music history course. But she insisted there was no point 'just listening' to repertoire unless we also attempted some in-class performances. Singing madrigals in history class? Not particularly radical in retrospect, but it shows how central actual music-making was to her educational strategies. Likewise, when confronted with Tallis's Spem in alium, Helen shared with us the 'real-life' inspiration of herself being one of the 40 parts in a performance - again, theory and practice were equally important.

After losing contact for several years, on returning to Brisbane I was delighted to renew contact at the Queensland Conservatorium, where she taught music education and musicianship. I learned at first hand just how closely Helen aligned practical skill development with theoretical knowledge, but 'in absentia'. For several weeks I had the onerous task of stepping into her lecturing shoes while she was a visiting scholar at the University of Western Australia. Her logically detailed class notes guided me through that terrifying stint of teaching aural training to some rather over-energised students. When Helen departed Queensland for her 'decade in the West', her disarming sense of humour was missed by colleagues.

A true appraisal of someone's impact is often possible only after they depart an organisation. Just as she demonstrated in Brisbane, Helen threw great energy into her pre-service education courses, as reported to me some years later by various UWA contacts. In the meantime, her Discover Music and Discover Music-making textbooks were becoming widely used. As reported later by some who were early-career teachers in the 1980s and 1990s, Helen's work made a very strong creative mark on school music. All teachers and students using her texts were expected to not only learn about other people's music, but make some of their own!

Only in recent years have I come to fully appreciate Helen's impact as a researcher, which bore fruit in numerous presentations and publications, but also in her doctoral dissertation on the Queensland school curriculum. We have recently conversed about the value of 'collective knowledge' with reference to cultural as well as educational practices. She is generous when appraising others' research, and is a demanding but fair PhD examiner.

Helen has always taken time to compose and arrange, simultaneously amusing and educating those around her. An early work in the AMC library is Missa Convivium ursi Eduardi (based on the 'Teddy Bears' Picnic'), and I vaguely remember conducting her Aussie picnic (based on Mozart's Rondo all turca replete with percussive mossies!). Now enjoying retirement in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, Helen recently reported she was doing 'a fair bit of arranging stuff for various chamber groups'. She is the type of musician who never really retires, and it is great to know her creative work continues to be appreciated.

While Helen Stowasser's AMC profile is naturally that of composer, her fulsome website biography recounts a lifetime of diverse achievements. From those who have known her work, or indeed personally as a colleague or mentor - many congratulations and Happy 80th Birthday, Helen!

AMC resources

Helen Stowasser - AMC profile (biography and work list)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Professor Peter Roennfeldt is a former Director of Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University, where he has lectured for more than 25 years. In addition to performances as pianist, his primary research focus is Queensland’s musical history, as seen most recently in his 2012 monograph Northern Lyrebird.


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